The next STEP in science education

August 3, 2011 By Emily Finn

By many accounts, the picture of science education in the United States is bleak: American students lag their international peers in standardized test scores, fewer of them are studying science and engineering at the university level, and reports of scientific literacy among adults range from mediocre to appalling. (A recent study found that one in five still thinks the sun orbits Earth.)

Recognizing the bottom-up nature of the problem, the National Research Council (NRC) released a new framework for primary school science curricula in July, replacing one that was more than a decade old. The new standards call for the nation’s educators to rethink their approach to teaching science and engineering, in hopes of producing more scientists — or, at least, better-informed citizens.

At MIT, where the spirit of science is alive and well, a small but committed group of undergraduates want to join the movement, pursuing teaching licenses alongside their bachelor’s degrees.

Perhaps one of the Institute’s best-kept secrets, the MIT Scheller Teacher Education Program (STEP), established in 1995 as part of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, is a teacher-certification program for undergraduates. Consisting of five courses and a student-teaching placement, completion of the program earns students their Massachusetts teaching certification. And according to Eric Klopfer, associate professor of and STEP director, the program and the pool of students it draws from produces teachers who are very well-equipped to implement the new NRC framework in their classrooms.

Under the new standards, instead of rote memorization of unrelated facts, students would focus on internalizing concepts that cut across scientific and engineering disciplines, such as “cause and effect” and “stability and change.” The framework also cites a need to teach kids how science is actually done: the process of formulating a hypothesis, gathering data and analyzing results. “The new standards really emphasize science as a process … and I think the overall education that students wind up getting at MIT really prepares them well for that,” Klopfer says.

‘That clicking moment’

The new framework seems to imply that it’s more effective to take scientists and turn them into educators, rather than the other way around.

But program manager Wendy Huang says STEP faces its “own challenges” in doing things this way. “To be a successful teacher, you need to understand your students,” she says. For MIT students, that means exposing them “to a range of learners, students for whom math and science are not intuitive,” she says.

John Lim, a senior in STEP, wholeheartedly agrees. “Coming to MIT doesn’t mean you’re good at explaining things,” he admits. He, like many teachers, feels a rush of satisfaction when his students experience “that clicking moment — when they’re like, ‘I get it!’” he says.

But when prompted for his most memorable experience from his student-teaching days, he cites a cruder moment. As he was “working the crowd,” weaving through the room while explaining a concept to his high school physics class, he paused behind a student busily tapping away at his graphing calculator — only to notice that instead of equations, the screen was awash with electronic drawings of “inappropriate objects.”

Just a couple of years removed from his own high school days, Lim says having to put on his “game face” to discipline the student and control the hysterics of his classmates was “surreal. … It gives you a whole new appreciation for what teachers have to deal with,” he says. “They do not get paid enough.”

Ultimately, though, most STEP students agree that if they are able to acquire the classroom-management skills, coming from MIT — or at least, “being nerdy,” as Lim puts it — is an asset as a science teacher.

Teachers Anonymous

STEP classes attract 30 to 40 students each year, with about a dozen of them going on to complete their full certification. Klopfer says he and his students jokingly refer to the group as “Teachers Anonymous,” a support group for MIT undergraduates who have decided they want to become teachers, and face skepticism from others — namely, their parents.

To be sure, primary or secondary school teaching is not an obvious career path for MIT alumni, who more often pursue graduate study or careers in industry. This level of teaching requires a much different mindset. Jenny Zhou, a senior biological engineering major pursuing her certification through STEP, was surprised by the unique skills teaching requires.

“Biological engineering … almost feels more clear-cut,” she says.

Still, Zhou says, she is attracted to both pursuits for similar reasons. “Both [biological engineering and teaching] are targeting small groups of people that have a lot of need,” she says. “In biological engineering, you might be trying to design a prosthetic that may only be used by a small number of people in the world, but it makes their lives more comfortable. In the classroom you’re focusing on making things comfortable for a small group of people — your students.”

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