High-quality instruction in STEM requires both teaching expertise and content knowledge. Yet, at the elementary school level, many teachers haven’t had any specialized education or training in science, leaving them at a loss for PD in STEM.

At the secondary level, studies show that about 33 percent of middle school math and science teachers and 30 percent of high school chemistry and physics teachers didn’t major in these fields and haven’t earned a certificate to teach them.

In 2014, Hillsborough County Public Schools and Polk County Public Schools received a three-year $4.5 million Math-Science Partnership Grant from the Florida Department of Education. Working in partnership with the University of South Florida, the purpose of our grant project, Accelerating Maximum Potential in STEM (AMP-STEM), is to increase teachers’ PD in STEM through content knowledge and their ability to create high-quality, standards-based, integrated STEM lessons for grades 3-12.

AMP-STEM has three components: Summer Institutes, STEM Certification Courses, and STEM Writer Academies.

Our teachers across all grade levels have made great strides in developing their STEM content knowledge and teaching skills. We’ve also learned a few PD in STEM lessons along the way. Here are a few:

1. Take a constructivist approach.

In traditional “sit and get” PD, it’s easy to overwhelm teachers with content or pedagogy. Instead, we conduct PD within a constructivist framework to actively engage and challenge teachers to think at higher levels. By modeling, and involving teachers in, best practices in STEM, we’re increasing their ability to apply these practices in their own classrooms.

(Next page: PD in STEM tips 2-6)

2. Create inquiry-based learning experiences.

We want our teachers to use the 5E instructional model, so we use this framework to deliver our content training. This not only makes the training more engaging, but it makes it easier for teachers to then apply these strategies with their students.

3. Use the same tools students will be using.

As part of these inquiry-based learning experiences, we use the same tools we expect teachers to use in their classrooms. Toward that end, we integrated PASCO Scientific sensors, data collection and analysis software, and science learning devices into our training. With these tools, teachers can see what it’s like to collect, analyze and report on data, which builds their confidence and helps with lesson planning. As a result, they can now better plan for student questions and misconceptions, and they have a better grasp of the real-world applications of these tools.

4. Emphasize the content, not the technology.

Technology — even if it’s designed to be user-friendly — is still intimidating for some teachers. By allowing teachers to learn how to operate technologies such as probeware within the context of a STEM lesson, it feels more natural and less like “tech training.”

5. Clearly describe your courses, including prerequisite knowledge and skills.

In our first year, we discovered that we didn’t market our STEM Certification Courses very well. As a result, we didn’t fill the courses and some participants didn’t have the base level of content knowledge expected for the course. In our second year, we were much more clear in our marketing materials, and our courses will filled to capacity with teachers who were ready for them.

6. Take the time to learn from each other.

We often try to solve challenges on our own — when the district next door might have a solution. It was very beneficial for teachers to sit together and realize they face similar struggles, and collaborate to find a solution. In fact, teachers frequently remarked on how much they learned from each other through this cross-district collaboration.

Thanks to AMP-STEM, our teachers are increasing their cross-curricular content knowledge and strategies for integrating STEM concepts into their classrooms. In our Summer Institutes, teachers’ pre- and post-test results show that we’re having a measurable impact on their content knowledge.

Similarly, with our STEM Certification Courses, we’ve increased the number of certified mathematics, chemistry and physics teachers in our middle and high schools. As we complete the third year of our grant, we look forward to seeing the impact this will have on student achievement.

About the Author:

Larry Plank is the director of K-12 STEM education in Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida. Tomeka F. Thompson, M.Ed, is the Mathematics & Science Partnerships (MSP) program coordinator in Polk County Public Schools in Florida.