No technology can replace high-quality teachers. But what happens when high-quality STEM teachers become hard to find, and what happens when STEM teacher applicant pools dry up? And how can the U.S. extend critical STEM learning opportunities to its youngest students?

Students today need more STEM learning opportunities inside classrooms and outside of school. Those opportunities can occur across content areas. But there are barriers to this learning, including teacher recruitment and training, the way STEM learning is structured in some schools, and existing policies.

A Top Education Priority

One of President Obama’s top education priorities involved building a pipeline of 100,000 highly-qualified and highly-trained STEM educators to imbue STEM learning with rigor and engagement. This led to the 100Kin10 movement, which aims to do just that by 2021. The movement’s efforts aim to tackle some of these lingering questions and challenges around high-quality STEM teachers.

“We’ve known about the need for STEM teachers for a long time, and we need to make sure our country is STEM-prepared,” said Grace Doramus, head of strategic initiatives and chief of staff for 100Kin10, during a webinar to address the STEM teacher conundrum. “We need to think about how we support teachers who are currently in the classroom and how we get them the PD and supports they need to continue teaching and continue improving their skills as they stay in the classroom.”

New research sheds light on these issues. Both STEM Starts Early: Grounding Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education in Early Childhood, published by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and New America with support from the National Science Foundation, and Can UTeach? Assessing the Relative Effectiveness of STEM Teachers, published by the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER), a program of the American Institutes for Research (AIR), explore these challenges.

(Next page: What the research says reducing the STEM teaching and learning shortage for young students)

The Joan Ganz Cooney Center’s research reveals five support strategies around early STEM learning as it pertains to students, teachers and parents:

  1. Both parents and teachers appear to be enthusiastic and capable of supporting early STEM learning; however, they require additional knowledge and support to do so effectively.
  2. Teachers in early childhood environments need more robust training and professional development to effectively engage young children in developmentally appropriate STEM learning.
  3. Parents and technology help connect school, home, and other learning environments like libraries and museums to support early STEM learning.
  4. Research and public policies play a critical role in the presence and quality of STEM learning in young children’s lives, and both benefit from sustained dialogue with one another and with teachers in the classroom.
  5. An empirically-tested, strategic communications effort is needed to convey an accurate understanding of developmental science to the public, leading to support for meaningful policy change around early STEM learning.

The research tells us how to bolster great STEM teachers and early STEM learning, but why is there such a need for high-quality early STEM learning?

The answer: Focusing on early STEM learning not only closes gaps, but it gives young children stronger knowledge bases to carry them to academic success.

For instance, organizing a school garden for preschoolers isn’t just cute, said Elisabeth McClure, a fellow at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center. “It’s cute, and because it’s cute, we tend to write it off. It’s not just cute. They’re doing some incredible things when you look closer–they’re laying a foundation for later learning. They’re collecting data, they’re observing, they’re forming hypotheses. These are all really critical STEM activities.”

STEM activities are especially critical for low-income students, as opportunity–or lack of it–around STEM learning has shown to leave a lasting impact.

“We’re finding that income-based STEM background knowledge gaps already exist starting in kindergarten, and for lots of children, those gaps don’t go away,” McClure said. “High-quality math experiences in early childhood end up predicting later academic outcomes more consistently than early attention and reading skills.”

Policy Must Keep Pace

Despite research-based indications, policies aren’t keeping pace.

Ever since a national focus on early literacy, education policies have mandated literacy as a major part of early childhood and early elementary learning, said Cindy Hoisington, a senior associate of, curriculum development and instructional design with the Education Development Center. “All our policies for early childhood and early elementary, all our policies around PD, and all our assessments and curricula were around early literacy. Now it’s about STEM. The teachers in early childhood and early elementary years are kind of shell-shocked. There aren’t enough policy changes to accommodate this focus on STEM.”

Results from research into a STEM teaching effort might shed light on practices that produce more STEM teachers and, in turn, improve student STEM learning, if those practices could be scaled down to earlier grades.

A Program for STEM Degrees

UTeach, which grew out of the University of Texas at Austin, emphasizes deep understanding of STEM content, practices and pedagogy, and strong connections between theory and practice. The program combines rigorous STEM degrees with secondary teaching certification without adding time or cost to four-year degrees.

Research on the UTeach program found that students taught by UTeach teachers performed significantly better on end-of-grade tests in math and end-of-course tests in math and science by 5-12 percent of a standard deviation on the test, depending on grade and subject. The effect is larger for the founding site at the University of Texas at Austin than for replication UTeach sites.

Researchers found that relative to other teachers in the state, graduates of both the UTeach founding site at Austin and the replication sites are more effective as measured by their ability to raise student test scores in math and science.

They also found evidence that UTeach partner universities do produce more STEM teachers after the implementation of UTeach. Thus, even if the UTeach program itself does not improve the quality of a given teacher candidate, by producing more teachers from universities with above average teachers, the program would still improve the overall quality of the STEM workforce.

“There are two areas where school systems complain it’s hard to get staff–STEM and special education/ELL,” said Dan Goldhaber, an American Institutes of Research vice president and director of Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research at AIR. “But the problems are different. With special education, it’s a turnover problem. With STEM, it’s a production problem–fewer people are choosing to become candidates. [This research] suggests something can be done to address issues of production with STEM teachers.”

About the Author:

Laura Ascione

Laura Ascione is the Managing Editor, Content Services at eSchool Media. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland's prestigious Philip Merrill College of Journalism. When she isn't wrangling her two children, Laura enjoys running, photography, home improvement, and rooting for the Terps. Find Laura on Twitter: @eSN_Laura http://twitter.com/eSN_Laura