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Patrick R. Riccards's picture
For more than two decades, Patrick has worked at the intersection of education policy, research, and communications. He previously served as chief of staff to the National Reading Panel and as...
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Transforming STEM Interest Into STEM Educators

According to a recent report released by ACT, student interest in STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math – continues to grow. In its latest study of ACT test takers, nearly 900,000 students, or half of the total sample, demonstrated an interest in STEM subjects.

Certainly, even a small uptick in students’ interest in STEM is a positive trend. As a nation, we know that STEM literacy is a non-negotiable in both college and career readiness. We also know that it is quickly becoming an essential tool for success in the workplace, regardless of the field one pursues.

Under this positive trend, though, is a troubling issue. Based on the ACT data, interest in STEM is not translating into an interest in teaching STEM. Nearly 2 million students took ACT’s survey this year. Of those, 900,000 showed an interest in STEM. And of those, only 5,500 (4,400 in math, 1,100 in science) expressed an interest in teaching either math or science once they graduated from college.

Consider that. Of today’s ACT test takers, nearly 50 percent are interested in STEM. Of those STEM-focused students, just six-tenths of a percent want to teach the subject.  Or even more horrific: just one of out every 165 high school graduates is considering teaching science.

This at a time when the Federal government is directing millions of dollars to encourage and support the development of STEM teachers. This at a time when a wide range of companies, not-for-profits, and philanthropies are promoting STEM careers and encouraging STEM education.

A teaching career is not for the faint of heart. It is particularly challenging for those that choose to teach a STEM subject. And for those who teach in secondary schools. And for those who teach in the high-need schools that require new STEM teachers the most.

For the past decade, students have received more and more information on the importance of STEM and why they need to pursue STEM subjects, both in high school and in postsecondary. ACT data demonstrates that that push is having its desired impact. The data also shows how much additional work remains to transform an interest in STEM into an interest in STEM teaching.

Accomplishing that requires more than just raising awareness of STEM teaching opportunities or cheering on those who choose such a path. It demands a coordinated, collaborative effort to transform how we recruit, prepare, and support STEM teachers for the classrooms of today and tomorrow.

The teacher is the single-most impactful influence on the learning of the child. If we want today’s students to have an interest in STEM and to want to pursue careers in STEM teaching, we need to provide them with well-prepared teachers who make STEM real in their classrooms. We need excellent educators who inspire the next generation of STEM teachers. We need classroom teachers who can inspire an interest in the STEM subjects, encourage high-ability students to consider teaching careers, and show them how best to prepare the next generation of learners.

Getting there requires us to take a closer look at how we are preparing today’s STEM teachers and how best to develop the teacher education programs to achieve these goals. What does that look like? Earlier this year, Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, laid out “15 Ways to Draw Great Teachers to High-Need Schools.” In his Education Week essay, Levine – the former president of Teachers College at Columbia University – reflected on his organization’s experiences in preparing excellent STEM teachers for urban and rural high-need schools in Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey, and Ohio.

These lessons provide a blueprint on how we, as a nation, can begin to bridge a general interest in STEM into a passion to become a STEM educator. Lessons that include:

  • Being selective in the approach, targeting only those universities with the capacity to create excellent teacher education programs to do so;

  • Investing in recruitment by focusing on high-ability students in STEM subject areas;

  • Focusing on one-year master’s-degree teacher education programs, instead of four-year undergraduate options;

  • Making clear to universities, policymakers, school districts, and prospective teachers what is expected from them both during the teacher education program and once they become teachers of record in their own classrooms;

  • Fostering partnerships between teacher education programs and the school districts in which their graduates will ultimately teach; and

  • Demanding accountability from both the prospective teachers AND the universities preparing them for the classroom.

Clearly, enacting these lessons requires change. It requires acknowledging that we must do things differently if our teachers colleges and other teacher education programs are ready to prepare the next generation of teachers, particularly in the STEM fields. And it demands redesigning and rebuilding our approach to teacher education.

The STEM subjects are not going away. The demand for STEM education in K-12 will continue to both increase and adapt (just look at the attention that is now paid to coding today). In our agrarian past, we would not expect a harvest if we did not have farmers tending to the fields. In today’s digital age, we cannot expect to properly educate students for the opportunities of the 21st century with an ample cadre of excellent STEM teachers to lead the classroom.