Submitted by Orit Hazzan on September 20, 2012 - 3:00am
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.
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.
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.
Orit Hazzan is head of the Department of Education in Technology and Science at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology.
What can we conclude when undergraduates bemoan, "How did anyone ever come up with this stuff?" Although the students might feel confused or bedazzled, there’s one thing for certain: the instructor jumped over the requisite missteps that originally led to the discovery at hand. This type of intellectual revisionism often depicts weighty concepts and conclusions as slick and sanitized, and, as a result, foreign and intangible.
In reality, every idea from every discipline is a human idea that comes from a natural, thoughtful, and (ideally) unending journey in which thinkers deeply understand the current state of knowledge, take a tiny step in a new direction, almost immediately hit a dead end, learn from that misstep, and, through iteration, inevitably move forward. That recipe for success is not just the secret formula for original scholarly discovery, but also for wise, everyday thinking for the entire population. Hence, it is important to explicitly highlight how essential those dead ends and mistakes are — that is, to teach students the power of failure and how to fail effectively.
Individuals need to embrace the realization that taking risks and failing are often the essential moves necessary to bring clarity, understanding, and innovation. By making a mistake, we are led to the pivotal question: "Why was that wrong?" By answering this question, we are intentionally placing ourselves in a position to develop a new insight and to eventually succeed. But how do we foster such a critical habit of mind in our students — students who are hardwired to avoid failure at all costs? Answer: Just assess it.
For the last decade or so, I’ve put my students’ grades where my mouth is. Instead of just touting the importance of failing, I now tell students that if they want to earn an A, they must fail regularly throughout the course of the semester — because 5 percent of their final grade is based on their "quality of failure." Would such a scheme provoke a change in attitude? Absolutely — with this grading practice in place, students gleefully take more risks and energetically engage in discussions.
And when a student (say, Aaron) makes a mistake in class, he exclaims, "Oh well, my quality of failure grade today is really high." The class laughs and then quickly moves to the serious next step — answering: Why was that wrong? It’s not enough to console an incorrect response with a nurturing, "Oh, Aaron, that’s not quite right, but we still think you’re the best! Now, does anyone else have another guess?" Instead, a mistake solicits either the enthusiastic yet honest response, "Congratulations, Aaron — that’s wrong! Now what lesson or insight is Aaron offering us?" or the class question, "What do you think? Is Aaron correct?" Either way, the students have to actively listen and then react, while Aaron sees his comment as an important element that allows the discussion to move forward.
I often refer back again and again to someone’s previous mistake to celebrate just how significant it was. If we foster an environment in our classrooms in which failing is a natural and necessary component in making progress, then we allow our students to release their own genius and share their authentic ideas — even if (or especially when) those ideas aren’t quite polished or perfectly formed.
After returning a graded assignment and reviewing the more challenging questions, I ask students to share their errors — and the class immediately comes to life: everyone wants to show off their mistakes as they now know they are offering valuable learning moments. What’s more, in this receptive atmosphere, it’s actually fun to reveal those promising gems of an idea that turned out to be counterfeit.
More recently, I’ve asked my students to intentionally fail — in the spirit of an industrial stress test. I now require my students to write a first draft of an essay very quickly and poorly — long before its due date — and then have the students use that lousy draft as a starting point for the (hopefully lengthy) iterative process of revising and editing. When the work is due, they must submit not only their final version, but also append their penultimate draft all marked up with their own red ink. This strategy assures that they will produce at least one intermediate draft before the final version. Not surprisingly, the quality of their work improved dramatically.
When I consult with or lead workshops for faculty and administrators, they are drawn to this principle of intentionally promoting failure, which inevitably leads to the question: How do you assess it? The first time I tried my 5 percent "quality of failure," I had no idea how to grade it. But I practiced what I preached — taking a risk and being willing to fail in the noble cause of teaching students to think more effectively. I passionately believe that assessment concerns should never squelch any creative pedagogical experiment. Try it today, and figure out how to measure it tomorrow.
In the case of assessing "quality of failure," at the end of the semester I ask my students to write a one-page reflective essay describing their productive failure in the course and how they have grown from those episodes (which might have occurred outside of class — including false starts and fruitful iterations). They conclude their essay by providing their own grade on how they have evolved through failure and mistakes (from 0 – meaning "I never failed" or "I learned nothing from failing" to 10 – meaning "I created and understood in profound, new ways from my failed attempts"). I read their narratives, reflect on their class participation and willingness to take risks, and then usually award them the surprisingly honest and restrained grades they gave themselves. To date, I’ve never had a student complain about their "quality of failure" grade.
To my skeptical colleagues who wonder if this grading scheme can be exploited as a loophole to reward unprepared students, I remind them that we should not create policies in the academy that police students, instead we should create policies that add pedagogical value and create educational opportunity. And with respect to my grading failure practice, I found no such abuse at the three institutions in which I have employed it (Williams College, the University of Colorado at Boulder and Baylor University). On the contrary, if implemented correctly, you will see your students more engaged, more prepared, and more thoughtful in class discussions and in life.
Beyond the subject matter contained in the 32 to 48 courses that typical undergraduates fleetingly encounter, our students’ education centers about the most important creative feat of their lives — the creation of themselves: Creating a mind enlivened by curiosity and the intellectual audacity to take risks and create new ideas, a mind that sees a world of unlimited possibilities. So we as educators and scholars should constantly be asking ourselves: Have I taught my students how to successfully fail? And if not, then: What am I waiting for?
Edward Burger is the Francis Christopher Oakley Third Century Professor of Mathematics at Williams College, and is an educational and business consultant. Other practical ways to fail and inspire students to make productive mistakes can be found in his latest book (co-authored with Michael Starbird), The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking(Princeton University Press).