Faculty members in the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education will be examining ways to improve the teaching and learning of science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects through three research projects funded by the National Science Foundation.
The projects range from examining novice elementary school teachers’ instruction of mathematics; to recruiting, educating and retaining certified high school science teachers; to evaluating the skill development of biology Ph.D. students.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in mathematics and interested in a career in the so-called STEM fields.
Teaching Mathematics in Elementary School
One meaningful way to increase high school graduates’ proficiency in mathematics is to improve the teaching of math in American elementary schools. Peter Youngs, associate professor of education at the Curry School, and colleagues at Michigan State University were awarded $1.6 million to study how social networks within elementary schools impact novice teachers’ mathematics instruction.
A new teacher’s social network can include teachers and administrators within the school who typically work closely with, and therefore influence, the teacher, according to Youngs. Some of these relationships are formal, as in an assigned mentoring relationship; but others are informal, such as teacher colleagues in other grade levels.
“We are examining a teacher’s proficiency in creating lesson plans for math instruction and the execution of those lesson plans, in addition to relationships these teachers have within their school,” Youngs said. “Our hope is to identify how different teacher social network characteristics (such as the level of math knowledge for teaching in a given network) affect novice teachers’ math instruction in different ways.”
Youngs and colleagues will study 150 novice teachers in 10 school divisions in Michigan, Illinois and Indiana. Beginning this fall, they will follow the teachers for two years, evaluating specifically their creation of lesson plans for mathematics lessons and the execution of those plans.
In addition, researchers will focus on how teachers’ social networks impact the teachers’ responses to the current climate of teacher evaluation, including the Common Core mathematics standards.
“The pressure for new teachers to successfully teach mathematics according to these standards and models is very high,” Youngs said. “We want to know how the social networks in schools can support or hinder their success.”
The Need for High School Science Teachers
National reports continue to find a critical shortage of high school science teachers in the country, and in Virginia. In an effort to increase the number of highly qualified high school science teachers, the Curry School has received a $1.28 million grant from the National Science Foundation Noyce Scholarship Program.
The project will seek to recruit, educate and retain 40 academically talented science and engineering undergraduate and graduate students, and scientists and engineers in industry, who will become certified high school science teachers. It will also induct scholarship recipients into the teaching profession and assist them in finding teaching positions in partner school districts and other high-need schools in Virginia.
The scholarship program will be implemented in partnership with the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the College of Arts & Sciences. Other partners include three school divisions across the commonwealth: Hampton City Schools, Alexandria City Public Schools, and Culpeper County Public Schools.
The project will be led by Frackson Mumba, Robert Tai and Vivien Chabalengula, each associate professors of science education at the Curry School; Jennifer Chiu, assistant professor of engineering education; Larry G. Richards, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering; and Dean Harman, professor and chair of the chemistry department. Their partners include three Virginia school divisions: Hampton City Schools, Alexandria City Public Schools and Culpeper County Public Schools.
Noyce Scholars will receive $20,800 toward the Curry School’s Master of Teaching degree programs, covering tuition and fees. The grant provides funding for 40 scholarships in five years.
The Curry School’s collaboration with the Engineering School and the College on multiple STEM projects, combined with its highly ranked secondary education program (ranked eighth in the nation by U.S. News and World Report), make it especially well-positioned to prepare these future science teachers, Mumba said.
Are Biology Students Gaining the Appropriate Skills?
While on a large scale the need is great for students to engage and remain in the STEM subjects, the need reveals itself more acutely in the myriad individual careers in the STEM fields.
Take, for example, biology researchers. This small part of the greater STEM pie is of critical importance to the economic growth of the U.S., which rests in part on preparing an effective and innovative scientific workforce.
Josipa Roksa, associate professor and associate director of the Curry School’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, in partnership with David Feldon, a colleague from Utah State University, is particularly concerned with students whose commitment to science brings them into a Ph.D. program in biology.
“The goal of graduate education is to prepare a highly skilled workforce, not just a highly credentialed one,” Roksa said. “Scientists cannot simply complete their degrees; they need to develop the research skills necessary to make new discoveries and test new ideas.”
With funds from a $1.5 million NSF grant, Roksa and Feldon are leading the first large-scale effort to objectively measure development of research skills over the course of graduate study. They are asking: How do students develop research skills? Is development of research skills related to productivity and getting through graduate school?
The duo will focus specifically on research skills of Ph.D. students in biology. They will test incoming doctoral students to establish a baseline of skill level at the beginning of their study and continue to evaluate students’ materials during their entire course of study.
Traditionally, researchers have looked at elements like socialization processes during students’ course of study, such as the types of interactions students have with their peers or the quality of mentoring relationships with faculty members. They have also examined the climate of a department, particularly as it relates to females and minority students.
“While elements like socialization and climate are important, examining students’ research skills provides the missing piece of the puzzle needed to retain these students and help them succeed as biology researchers,” Roksa said.