Let’s be clear. Learning to teach is a career-long process, and building a successful teaching career in a rapidly changing society means devoting deliberate attention to your own professional development (PD) while keeping your students’ needs foremost in mind. Teaching is about preparing our students for success in the future. Looking to the future, many workplace demands will likely involve considerable knowledge in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), so preparing students effectively is critical. Therefore, even if STEM is not your strong suit, you owe it to your students to prepare to be a proactive STEM teacher regardless of your grade level or discipline.
Even if you were a STEM major in college, it is likely that your studies were heavy on content information and light on STEM teaching methods. If your major was in education, especially elementary education, your STEM content knowledge may be quite limited. In either case, you’ll need professional development that builds your capacity to provide students with rich STEM learning opportunities. Here are four tips to help you continue developing STEM expertise in your new career.
- Recognize that STEM teaching and learning develops skills that you can apply to all disciplines.
A single STEM lesson or project often involves skills from many different disciplines. For example, a lesson on climate change may require students to utilize both their reading skills to gather information from a variety of sources and their mathematics skills to interpret data, graphs, and charts. Students may use their writing, artistic, technology, and communication skills to develop and deliver a compelling presentation about the topic. The time teachers spend in STEM professional development and that students spend in STEM instruction is time well spent to strengthen skills they can apply to all disciplines.
- Pursue quality STEM professional development (PD) opportunities.
Your campus or school district is likely to provide mandatory and/or elective PD, but watch for additional PD resources. Choose PD that is designed to allow you to experience active engagement with hands-on activity (as opposed to simply listening to a lecture), to see effective learning activities modeled, and to have opportunities to discuss and reflect with colleagues on how specific activities might be used in your own classroom.
Seek out PD that is tied to state and/or national standards such as the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and that incorporates practices shown to be effective through research. Consider the benefits of more sustained, intensive PD compared to “one and done” experiences. While typical half-day, stand-alone workshops can be helpful, a workshop series or multi-day “institute” experience can offer more depth of content.
- Embrace STEM learning as an experience that will positively impact your teaching.
Even if STEM is not your main thing, other early career teachers have found STEM PD to be enormously rewarding and have utilized its resources to a high degree. For example, for the past three summers (2016–2018), each of the 10 NASA Centers have hosted MUREP Educator Institutes (MEIs). The 5-day MEIs are immersive experiences comprised of student-centered, hands-on classroom activities that utilize NASA assets and resources and help teachers develop culturally responsive instructional practices that will enhance STEM instruction for all students. Studies have shown that MEI participants find value in its resources. As one participant commented, “Science is an intimidating subject for many students, and even teachers. This MEI experience has taught me that it doesn't have to be. There are multiple ways to switch it up in the classroom and make it engaging for students.” Another commented, “The NASA MEI experience was an eye-opener! I never thought that I would enjoy and love science/STEM the way I do now!”
- Capitalize on STEM learning opportunities from a variety of PD providers.
The most effective teachers continuously seek quality STEM learning opportunities for their students and themselves. NASA is a rich source of free educator resources, and you can register to receive email notices for NASA PD opportunities at the NASA EXPRESS Newsletter sign-up. For example, there are weekly webinars presented by NASA education specialists and many on-line NASA learning modules through which completers will earn Continuing Education Credits (CEUs). Educators can register for the webinars at https://www.txstate-epdc.net/event-post/ and the NASA digital badges can be accessed at https://www.txstate-epdc.net/digital-badging/. Other quality STEM PD providers include the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), state science teacher organizations, regional professional organizations, and educational service centers.
As an early-career teacher, you are in an exciting profession at an exciting time. Never have teachers been more important in showing all students the many opportunities available to them in STEM. So once again, let’s be clear: You are the steward of own career, and high-quality STEM professional development is an excellent way to invest in your career success and benefit your current and future students.
By Virginia Resta and Leslie Huling
Dr. Resta is Distinguished Associate Professor Emeriti, College of Education, at Texas State University. She currently serves as Program Evaluation Specialist with the NASA STEM Engagement and Professional Development Collaborative. Her research interests include teacher preparation, teacher induction, and teacher retention.
Dr. Huling is a Professor in the College of Education at Texas State University, where she is Program Director and Principal Investigator of the NASA STEM Engagement & Educator Professional Development Collaborative.