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Essay on role for research universities in promoting STEM education

Agenda for Research Universities

September 20, 2012

Many Western countries face shortages in high school STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) teachers. This shortage can be partially explained by the fact that qualified young people who excel in STEM prefer to study one of the STEM subjects and work in the tech industry as scientists and engineers, rather than join the education system. This choice seems reasonable, since such people can earn significantly more and work under better conditions elsewhere than in the education system. Unfortunately, this choice applies also to talented young people who do wish to be educators and contribute to the education system, but must forfeit their dreams mainly due to financial considerations.

Not surprisingly, this teacher shortage has an immediate impact on the quality of STEM education in high school and, consequently, on the level of STEM knowledge that undergraduates have when they begin their studies at university. Universities clearly suffer from this missing knowledge; further, entire countries suffer because the graduates’ potential contribution to the national economy is not fulfilled.

Leading universities around the world, especially those that focus on science and technology, look at these trends, worry about the inadequacies of elementary and secondary education, and in many cases tend to take a reactive approach. It's time for universities to proactively address this shortage without depending on government funds and without having to make significant investments to this end.

The Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, for example, launched last year a special program, Views, whose objective is to help alleviate the shortage in high school STEM teachers in Israel. The Technion, which recently won, together with Cornell University, the competition to establish an applied sciences graduate school on Roosevelt Island off Manhattan, is the major supplier of scientists and engineers to Israeli industry, and its graduates constitute over 70 percent of the country's founders and managers of high-tech companies. Due to the ingenuity of Technion alumni, Israel is now home to the largest concentration of technology start-up companies outside of Silicon Valley, and 80 percent of Israeli NASDAQ companies are led by Technion graduates.

Proud as we are of our alumni excellence in STEM, we want them to own an additional profession – high school STEM teachers – which they will be able to use if and when they choose to switch to education, without discouraging their excellence in the worlds of research or business.

To this end, Views invites Technion graduates back to the Technion to study toward an additional bachelor's degree in its department of education in technology and science, which awards a teaching certificate for high school STEM subjects. Technion graduates enrolled in the Views program receive full study scholarships from the Technion for two years and are not required to commit themselves to teach in the education system. Extending the program over two academic years enables the graduates to continue working as scientists and engineers in industry in parallel to their studies (one day or two half-days each week).

Technion graduates are not required to commit themselves to teach in the education system since the knowledge they gain in the Views program is useful also in businesses, where teaching and learning processes are crucial for coping with new knowledge and technological developments on a daily basis. Thus, even if they decide not to switch to education, they will still contribute to Israel’s prosperity, but in a different way.

In its current, first year of operation (2011-12), the program started with 60 Technion graduates. Sixty percent of them are males – a fact that indicates that the Views program indeed attracts populations that traditionally do not choose education as their first choice, and who at the same time are attracted to the program.

All Win

The Views program has advantages on many levels and can be viewed as a win-win situation from the perspectives of the individual, the industry, the university, the education system, and the state.   

The Technion graduates gain an additional degree that enables them to increase their mobility in the industry in which they are currently working. This includes potential jobs in training and professional development departments as well as leadership positions that require teaching skills. In addition, earning a degree in STEM education can solve the problem faced by many engineers either during economic crisis or when they approach the age of 40-50, when some lose their jobs and have difficulties finding new jobs. Others would teach part-time or join informal educational programs and continue working in their various companies. No matter when and how they are involved in the education system, for some of them, it will be the fulfillment of a dream that they could not accomplish earlier.

The technology industry, which is the work arena of most Technion graduates, gains (at no cost) people with pedagogical knowledge which, as mentioned, is essential in this industry. This is why these companies enable their Technion graduates to miss work one day a week in order to attend the Views program.

The university wins since the returning graduates have very extensive and solid scientific and engineering knowledge and therefore, if and when they switch to education, they will be able to better educate future generations of students. This, of course, does not mean that other teachers do not have strong and updated knowledge; the graduates’ knowledge is, however, connected both to current science and technology developments based on their work experience in the industry and to the academic spirit of the Technion.

In particular, the Technion’s department of education in technology and science benefits since the graduates enrolled in the Views program study together with the department's other undergraduates and bring to the classroom relevant, new and up-to-date knowledge. At the same time, the regular undergraduates are inspired by the fact that successful scientists and engineers consider joining the education system and working in the profession that they chose to study. The instructors teaching in the Views program have already recognized these added values and have felt a change in the class atmosphere since the graduates joined their courses.

The high school educational system will benefit from the Views program since these qualified scientists and engineers will increase diversity in the cohort of high school STEM teachers and hopefully will change the image of the profession of education. These graduates will also bring into the education system not only updated content knowledge but also organizational experience, which includes new management methods and teamwork habits that they implemented previously in the high-tech industry. Curriculum development of STEM subjects in the school may also improve since the scientists and engineers will bring into the system updated knowledge and relevant examples they worked on in the industry, making the curriculum more vivid, appealing and interesting.

Finally, the government and state win, since the program may be carried out with almost no additional budget. In addition, no any special effort is needed to entice qualified people to switch to education or to encourage young people to enter into the field of education by offering them financial benefits. Thus, it will be possible to stop advocating an approach that sometimes leads to bad feelings in teacher lounges, when teachers discover that different teachers receive different pay, which is not necessarily based on their educational success and commitment to the education system. And lastly, this new pool of scientists and engineers with an educational background is simply an investment in states’ human capital.

Looking Forward

The Views program, described above, can be expanded into a wider program that addresses the shortage of high school STEM teachers. In its full application, the vision includes also undergraduate STEM students who will be able to study toward a bachelor's degree in high school STEM education in parallel to their undergraduate studies, with no additional tuition cost. This means that each semester students will take one or two pedagogical courses from the STEM education program, in parallel to their regular science and engineering undergraduate studies, and will complete the two degrees at the same time. Thus, upon graduation they will become both scientists/engineers and educators, sometimes without extending the total study time needed.

Once again, these students will not have to commit themselves to work in the education system; however, it is reasonable to assume that some of them will turn to education just after graduation or at some stage in their professional development. In the meanwhile, after they graduate, they will use the pedagogical knowledge they gain in the Views program in their jobs in the high-tech industry and improve teaching and learning processes in their organization. In addition, their undergraduate studies will be more diverse and they will be able to use this knowledge immediately to improve their learning processes in their undergraduate studies.

From a broader perspective, programs such as Views may change the perception of the high school STEM teacher: No longer will it be a profession one remains in for many years with almost no options for mobility; rather, teaching STEM will be regarded as a step in the professional development of scientists and engineers, providing also employment security. In other words, as it is common to change jobs in the hi-tech industry, it will be possible to leave the industry forever or for several years in order to work in the education system; another option is to dedicate one work day to the educational system, maintaining the tech job as the main work place. Education is perceived, from this perspective, as an addition profession by which scientists and engineers can foster their professional development.

Since Israel is such a small country, it is my belief that the Views program will significantly impact Israel’s science and technology education in the very near future. It is, however, worthwhile to investigate its potential in other countries. Thus, Israel may serve as a pilot case study for larger countries. Needless to say, traditional STEM teacher preparation programs should be continued as well.

 

Bio

Orit Hazzan is head of the Department of Education in Technology and Science at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology.

 

 

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