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4 ways to improve STEM professional development

How teacher buy-in and excitement were evidenced in a variety of ways during and after teacher-led STEM PD training

In Charlotte County Public Schools (CCPS), all 10 of our elementary schools have a STEM lab. As early as kindergarten, students begin engaging in hands-on learning and exploring STEM careers. Yet, even with regular visits to the STEM lab throughout elementary school, our fifth graders struggled on the Florida Statewide Science Assessment. Another challenge was that our teachers didn’t have a defined STEM curriculum that was uniformly applied to all elementary STEM labs.

To turn things around, we applied for a Mathematics and Science Partnership (MSP) grant from the Florida Department of Education. We were awarded the grant in 2015-16 to fund our “STEM Education Enhancement (SEE) for Student Success!” project.

Train-the-Trainer Model

As part of the project, the STEM lab teacher from each elementary school participated in a train-the-trainer model of professional development (PD), which consisted of nine full days of training throughout the school year. In addition, we provided all 10 teachers with the STEMscopes™ online, comprehensive STEM curriculum and hands-on exploration kits.

Through the MSP grant project, our teachers improved their instructional capabilities and their confidence in STEM, which has really paid off in our STEM labs and classrooms.

Following are four lessons we learned that helped us—and could help other schools—enhance the content knowledge and teaching skills of STEM teachers.

1. Give teachers a say.
Teachers often lack a voice and a choice in professional development. One of the first lessons we learned is that teachers should have a say in what they learn and they should feel comfortable enough to have a candid conversation about what they need or what they don’t know.

Toward that end, in each of the nine PD sessions, teachers discussed and decided which science standards they thought should be included in their next training. Including teachers in the planning and decision-making helped them feel more empowered, which helped them embrace the training. It also resulted in PD tailored to their most pressing needs, and it helped them “own” the curriculum and strategies discussed in each session.

2. Facilitate collaboration.

Having nine days of on-site PD helped our STEM lab teachers develop a very strong sense of community. Throughout the training, the level of interaction and the sharing of ideas and materials were incredible, and that collaboration continued online between the sessions. As a result, teachers left each session energized and excited to return to their schools and train their peers on the knowledge and skills they learned.

(Next page: 2 more tips for STEM PD)

3. Dig deeper into the standards.

One of our goals for the grant project was to help teachers develop a deeper understanding of the Florida Next Generation Sunshine State Standards (NGSSS) for Science. So, within each PD session, the trainer led teachers in a frank discussion of the standards being covered, which helped them uncover their own misconceptions.

For each standard, the trainer helped the teachers identify the most important part of the standard (e.g. what exactly students need to know) at each grade level. She also demonstrated how the standards are interrelated and vertically aligned throughout each grade level. The trainer then led the teachers through a lesson from the online, standards-based curriculum so they could see first-hand how to engage students and effectively teach the standard.

Next, the teachers would return to their schools, try out the lesson with their students, and report back in the following PD session about what went well and what didn’t, and discuss how to improve.

4. Model key instructional strategies.

In addition to increasing teachers’ content knowledge, we wanted to expand their use of inquiry-based instructional strategies. So, throughout the PD, the trainer modeled the 5E (Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, Evaluate) inquiry model, which is what we expect teachers to implement with their students. Experiencing the 5E model first-hand gave teachers new insights into how effective and engaging this model is for students, and it helped them become much more comfortable with this approach in their own labs.

Improving Teacher Effectiveness and Student Achievement

An evaluation of our MSP project conducted by Dr. Laura Frost of Florida Gulf Coast University found that teachers felt that their knowledge and skills in STEM improved by participating in the SEE Student Success project. Results from a self-efficacy survey called the “Science Teacher Efficacy Belief Instrument (STEBI )” reflected positive changes due to the training.

In addition, teacher buy-in and excitement were evidenced in a variety of ways during and after the training—from the presentations teachers made to their colleagues at faculty meetings to their increased usage of the online STEM curriculum and exploration kits.

We also examined student achievement based on the fifth grade results from the Florida Statewide Science Assessment, which measures student achievement of the NGSSS. In 2014-15, the year before our MSP grant project began, our fifth graders’ proficiency rate was 50 percent. In 2016-17, it was 53 percent. In contrast, from 2015 to 2017, the average proficiency rate for the state of Florida dropped from 53 percent to 51 percent.

Thanks to the MSP grant, the training, and the use of the online curriculum, our teachers now feel like experts in standards-based learning in STEM. They have a deeper knowledge of the content and the standards as well as inquiry-based instructional strategies, which will have a long-lasting impact on their effectiveness with students.

For us, the training and curriculum were the missing pieces that helped teachers make sense of the standards and that allowed students to experience the science reflected by the standards. Even better, students enjoy learning STEM and they look forward to going to the STEM lab because they’re actually doing STEM.

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