photograph by Sara Rubinstein

A Magical Moment

Effective STEM teaching in that critical first year.

The time to entice students to be STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) teachers is during the first years of college, says Susan Singer, a professor of natural sciences at Carleton College whose work integrates science and education. By reaching out broadly, even to those with no intention of going into teaching, she says, we may do more in the long run to enhance science education in the United States.

Why go after college students who may not know whether they want to be teachers?

By starting when students first come to college, you support the whole culture of teaching. You won’t just tap students who will become K–12 teachers, but you’ll also increase broader awareness and support of education among those who will become college educators as well as future administrators, policymakers, and parents.

What are the barriers to getting college students involved in science teaching?

When college students first arrive, they’re barely a year older than high school students. It’s hard for them to envision teaching their peers. They may also come with a set of family expectations that by studying science, they will likely go to medical school. And considering the huge cost of a college education and a teacher’s salary, how will they pay off student loans? There are lots of things working against an interest in teaching. So we need to start early.

What are some concrete actions that grab first-year students?

At Carleton, we get them involved in one-on-one mentoring with younger students—the local high school’s Science Olympiad team. As a first-year student, everybody knows more than you. But give them an opportunity to be an expert to younger kids, and they feel good about themselves and see that they offer something valuable.

There are so many ways to get students involved in teaching opportunities: They can work with high school students in college readiness programs. They can do peer tutoring, work as teaching assistants in a lab, or find a faculty member to mentor them as they mentor other students. In prefect programs, students who’ve done well in a class can be trained to offer help sessions to students currently enrolled in the class. The key is that you don’t want students to figure out how to teach on their own. We aim for a tight link between field experience and teaching theory.

You chaired the National Science Foundation committee that produced the report “Promising Practices in Undergraduate STEM Education.” What were the big take-away messages?

We know a fair bit about what works in terms of effective STEM teaching. In the undergraduate classroom setting, there are many different strategies for teaching that enhance student learning. We’d be far better off if more people would begin to adopt any of these strategies in their teaching so that students are actively engaged in their own learning and taking responsibility for it. But there’s a huge gap between what we know and what’s happening in college classrooms. The challenge is finding effective ways to encourage faculty to put these known practices in place in their college classrooms.

Is there one change you can point to that would bring about real innovation in how science is taught in America?

As much as we’d all love a silver bullet, there is no single thing that will change STEM education. It will take a lot of stakeholders working together. There has to be clear leadership at the highest level saying that STEM education is in a crisis in this country and that we need to focus on this in a sustained way and approach it in an evidence-based way. Unfortunately, everyone thinks he’s an expert and everyone has an opinion. If we could agree to move forward using evidence, rather than deeply held beliefs or an aunt’s or cousin’s best idea, we could do it.

But it will take an investment in the professional development of teachers. We can’t just keep hammering on teachers, saying we have to hold them accountable, that they have to do more and work harder. We need to create a system that values teachers, recognizes their professional expertise, and supports them with preservice and in-service training. In this country, education is organized at the state level. If states can find ways to work together and share what they’ve learned, everybody wins.

Why now?

We are at an incredibly magical moment for science education. All of the new standards and recommendations are aligning— the Framework for K–12 Science Education, Next Generation Science Standards, Science College Board Standards for College Success, the revised AP Biology Curriculum, Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education, and Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians. They’re evidence based, calling for teachers to teach a different way.

Others have called for more scientists to get involved in education. What made you do it?

I’ve been absolutely passionate about teaching science since 11th grade; I even wrote about genetics and education in English class. Twenty-five years ago, I made an intentional decision to come to Carleton because I could have a viable research career and good teaching was valued. Often, research and teaching are viewed as competing rather than synergistic. When science faculty bring their own research into the teaching lab, there is synergy.

What should scientists aim for in teaching?

Science is fascinating, but as a group we scientists aren’t very good at conveying the wonder of science to younger people or adults. One way to do that is through learning about education. Any kind of public outreach—preschool, K–12—is teaching. I’d be thrilled if one of my students said he wanted to teach preschool.

Susan Singer won the Botanical Society of America’s 2011 Excellence in Teaching award.