“The biggest problem with teaching STEM at any level is trying to stay current,” said Aaron Cassill, associate professor of cell and molecular biology and director of STEM Programs at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
“Common practice today was just a dream or beyond understanding 20 years ago, so someone who is not active in the laboratory is often unfamiliar with the latest techniques and advances.”
Cassill said he and his team address this problem with summer internships that let teachers get a first-hand look at laboratory activities. This helps teachers establish contacts with research faculty so their students can interact with active science professionals, which (in turn) creates opportunities for students to visit labs and even perform work.
O’Hara said one program that can help math and science educators stay current in their field is Industry Initiatives for Science and Math Education (IISME), which creates industry-education partnerships.
“These are short summer internships that help teachers get the exposure they need, and they can then take that knowledge about a STEM career back to their students,” said O’Hara.
Middle school science teacher Rachel Smith participated in the Leadership Initiatives for Teaching and Technology (LIFT2) program, which also puts science and math teachers into a STEM-related job for the summer.
“It was a huge eye-opener to me to see how students need to be better prepared for STEM careers,” said Smith. “Through working at Stantec Engineering Consultants in Westford, Mass., this past summer, I’ve learned some ways to introduce STEM careers into the classroom.”
“One of the best ways I’ve learned about careers is working with industry and aerospace specifically,” said the Coalition for Space Exploration’s Bloemen. “Also, working with high school and middle-level counselors is helpful. I work at the middle level because I believe this is the best time to catch and engage students in science; by high school, it is too late, since they have already set their minds to what they like and don’t like.”
For educators who don’t have the means to spend funds on conferences or expensive lab equipment, private and nonprofit organizations are lending a hand.
During Engineers Week (Feb. 14-20), ASQ invited K-12 educators across the United States to bring an ASQ engineer into the classroom to promote engineering as a career. Educators were urged to contact ASQ to find an engineer volunteer in their area.
Ben Dubin-Thaler, Biobus founder and chief scientist, discussed how his company operates the Cell Motion Biobus, which brings a research-grade mobile science lab to schools, where students then perform science experiments side-by-side with Ph.D. scientists. The company recruits volunteer scientists from around New York City and the country to help teach students and serve as role models.
Another program is the Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy. In 2005, ExxonMobil partnered with golfer Phil Mickelson and astronaut Sally Ride to provide a week-long professional development program for third through fifth-grade teachers that aims to enhance their math and science skills and help them inspire students. Since its inception, the academy has educated more than 2,000 teachers from 50 states.
A newer initiative is the Sally Ride Science Academy by ExxonMobil. This program has a “train the trainer” focus, giving principals and curriculum coordinators the tools to bridge the gender gap in math and science education and encourage girls to pursue these careers.
Some states are even taking extra steps to ensure their teachers are STEM career-savvy.
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