eBriefing

Science Teaching as a Profession: Why It Isn't. How It Could Be.

Science Teaching as a Profession
Reported by
Erica Nofi

Posted April 09, 2010

Overview

The second event presented by the New York Science Education Initiative brought together more than 150 secondary science teachers, research scientists, and other educators to discuss the future of science teaching as a profession and the roles that scientists can play in improving education.

Sheila Tobias, a writer focused on math and science learning, presented the initial results of the Science Teaching as a Profession project, which she co-directs. Tobias and her colleague Anne Baffert conducted their research through their web site and in personal interviews with science teachers and science chairs. Beginning with the question: "Does your work life make you feel like a professional?" the team surveyed hundreds of secondary science teachers about the status of teaching, what it would take to retain teachers in this high-attrition field, and many other issues.

Following Tobias's talk, the audience broke out into small discussion groups, each of which included a scientist and a NYAS staff member facilitator. The groups discussed their experiences teaching science and the potential of collaborating with scientists to improve science education.

Use the tabs above to find a meeting report and multimedia from this event.


Presented by

The Pamela B. and Thomas C. Jackson Fund

Dr. Gabrielle Reem & Dr. Herbert Kayden

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

Science Teaching as a Profession


Sheila Tobias

Speaker

Sheila Tobias

web site

Supported by the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Research Corporation, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Sheila Tobias' work has made her a sought-after consultant on college and university curricula, general education, post-baccalaureate alternatives, professional master's in science and mathematics, and women's studies. Educated in history and literature at Harvard/Radcliffe, Tobias earned a master's in history and an MPhil at Columbia University and eight honorary doctorates, the most recent from Michigan State University and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Sheila Tobias, a writer focused on math and science learning, presented the initial results of the Science Teaching as a Profession project, which she co-directs. Tobias and her colleague Anne Baffert conducted their research through their web site and in personal interviews with science teachers and science chairs. Beginning with the question: "Does your work life make you feel like a professional?" the team surveyed hundreds of secondary science teachers about the status of teaching, what it would take to retain teachers in this high attrition field, and many other issues. Although the research was opportunistic—depending on individual teachers to volunteer their opinions through online participation—rather than systematic, it provides valuable insight to the current state of careers in science teaching. The project led to a book of the same title, co-authored with Baffert and published by the National Science Teachers Association.

Tobias argued that the trend toward test-based assessment and teacher accountability has eroded the professionalism and status of teaching as a career, to the detriment of science education. She compared teaching to other professions, such as medicine and law, whose practitioners are highly-trained, self-policing, and place service over personal gain. Tobias outlined these and other identifiers of professionalism, and used teacher interview results to illustrate how returning the qualities of professionalism to teaching would improve teacher job satisfaction and retention, as well as overall educational quality.

Tobias concluded by noting that the U.S. was recently rated by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) as 29th out of 57 countries in high school students' science comprehension. While this statistic is upsetting, Tobias claimed it offers an opportunity to make a serious change in the teaching of science in this country, one that will give our students an advantage in the technology-centric markets of the future. The participation of practicing scientists in this process is vital both to the content and status of science education.

Workshop Results

Following Tobias's talk, the audience broke out into small discussion groups, each of which included a scientist and a NYAS staff member facilitator. The groups discussed their experiences teaching science and the potential of collaborating with scientists to improve science education.

The major areas of discussion and conclusions are presented here.

Challenges and successes in the science classroom

Teachers, discussing their successes and challenges in the classroom, reported that topics that relate directly to students and their lives were most engaging. Teachers reported that students responded best when the material was related to:

  • Their bodies
  • Their immediate environment
  • Their futures and careers
  • Their idealism and ability to influence the world

The "Wow Factor" was also cited as a tool to increase engagement:

  • Surprising demonstrations, a.k.a. discrepant events
  • Explosions
  • Extremes and awe, such as in Astronomy or Paleontology
  • Real materials, such as dissections, or extremely detailed models

Teachers presented extensive tool chests of engagement techniques, but when it came to challenges, two central topics quickly emerged: scientific thinking and math. Additionally, it was pointed out that sometimes it can be difficult to tell whether a student is struggling with a conceptual misunderstanding or a math difficulty. Teachers also shared that the best way to make math understandable is to provide context, whether by relating the math to the students' lives, or by teaching the math through the science concepts.

Creativity and thinking about science

It was agreed that the key to teaching scientific thinking is the reintroduction of creativity to the classroom, a proposition that can be difficult when students expect test-based teaching methods. Some teachers said that by the time students have reached high school, they have already been trained to think of science as a subject of rote memorization.

Despite this challenge, many teachers have found success by placing students in the role of primary investigators rather than having them follow lab instructions. For example, one teacher had the students present their findings from unguided experiments at a mock conference.

What scientists can bring to classrooms

Teachers generally agreed that outside visitors can inspire extra interest and attention. Bringing scientists into the classroom can give students a real, relatable connection to the practice of science, as well as the opportunity to see themselves in the role of a scientist. Hearing scientists discuss the process they use in their labs can also help students understand scientific thinking.

In addition to directly relating their experiences in the lab, visiting scientists can also give students the chance to see their classroom teachers as ongoing learners, and scientists as former students. Seeing parallels between their learning process and the learning processes of teachers and scientists can also inspire investment in science learning.

What teachers can learn from scientists

Given the opportunity to interact directly with scientists, teachers suggested that they would use it both to improve their own understanding of science and to learn techniques to reach students. Many teachers mentioned that learning more cutting-edge science to bring to the classroom would help them engage students. They also wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the topics they are already teaching, and learn new ways of teaching them, including new demos or experiments to do with supplies already on hand. Particular interest was also expressed in discovering ways to integrate more scientific thinking, experiments, or current science into standards.

Scientists can also learn from teachers and classrooms

Scientists at the event pointed out that they also have a lot to learn from classroom situations. Many scientists want to learn how to express the concepts in their work more clearly to general audiences, and graduate students in particular need experience, outreach, and teaching on their resumes.

While agreeing that bringing scientists into the classroom was a positive experience for all involved, both scientists and teachers shared some cautionary comments about the process. The outlook of the scientist is geared toward rigor, while a teacher is interested in the excitement of science—the two viewpoints may be difficult to reconcile, but have much to offer one another. Teachers also noted that both students and scientists need to be prepared for classroom interaction: students should prepare questions, while scientists should be briefed on the students' level of understanding.

How to connect scientists with classrooms

Scientists at the event overwhelmingly indicated that their colleagues are interested in becoming involved with K-12 education and value their experiences in schools. However, both teachers and researchers have difficulty making contact with willing partners—several individuals related bad experiences when looking for laboratories or classrooms with which to partner. Another complaint was that most scientists participate in "high-end" competitions, events, or programs, rather than in schools where improvement is most needed.

Many participants were interested in an online network or listing of schools and laboratories interested in partnerships, visiting speakers, mentors, and internships—the Academy's ability to build communities may be an answer to this need. Scientists suggested that schools institute semi-formalized "lecture series" to attract graduate student speakers looking for experience. Another possibility is for research institutions to systematically encourage their faculty and staff to participate in school efforts.

How can scientists support teachers

The most important theme that arose in this final discussion was the need for mutual respect. Science teachers need the respect of the entire community, and if scientists are to help increase the effectiveness of science education, they must respect science teachers and demonstrate that respect. The support of scientists would be influential in the attempt to return professionalism to science teaching.

There are several ways for scientists to help engage the public in science education, beyond speaking in classrooms. Teachers at the event suggested that scientists could help involve parents and impress upon them the value and importance of science education—possibly through speaking to parents groups or giving evening demonstrations for parents. Scientists can also speak with or write to media outlets like newspapers, radio shows, and web sites, and encourage other scientists to participate.