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2012 January 23 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Creative Tension

Photo Courtesy El Camino College

Future teachers attending El Camino College show fifth graders how airplanes fly.

C  O   V E  R    S  T  O  R  Y

Creative  Tension
Colleges Devise Programs To Boost STEM Teachers
By Paul Bradley


Creativity long has been at the core of teacher education programs at the nation’s community colleges.

In one sense, that’s been out of necessity. While the role of community colleges in teacher education has grown significantly over the last decade — fed by a rise in the population of school-aged children and the retirement of thousands of experienced teachers — the institutions remain outside the mainstream of hidebound, traditional schools of education.

So community colleges, charged with helping to increase the supply of qualified teachers, have carved a niche, becoming leaders in things like alternative certification, early childhood education, and increasingly, equipping a new generation of teachers with the skills to teach in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math.

Many of the efforts have been spearheaded by the National Science Foundation, which has used its Advanced Technological Education grant program to advance its goal of broadening participation in the STEM fields, particularly among women and minority groups.

Community colleges are well-positioned to do such work because of their open admission policies and large proportions of minority enrollment. The ATE grant program strives to open the door to the high-skill, high-wage, academically demanding STEM fields to underrepresented groups.

For example, an $886,000 NSF-ATE grant will back a partnership aimed at increasing the number of women and minorities in the STEM fields in Maryland. The Community County of Baltimore County, the National Alliance for Partnership in Equity Education and the Maryland State Department of Education recently launched the Educators’ Equity STEM Academy.

Said Mimi Lufkin, the alliance’s chief executive officer: “The academy will help community college faculty and secondary school teachers to select, develop and evaluate teaching tools, resources and strategies designed to improve the academic outcomes of diverse student populations. In-person and virtual educator-based learning communities will create an environment for educators to effectively address implicit biases which cause inequity in the classroom.”

Professional Growth

The first year of the program will focus on community college teachers. Fifteen CCBC faculty members from the college’s three campuses will be the focus of the first year of the academy, receiving training on the delivery, content and utility of instructional material.

This summer, 50 educators — 25 community college professors and 25 high school teachers — will receive training as the state strives to create a statewide high-school-to- community-college pipeline of STEM courses and career programs. In the third year, the program will open up to educators from across the state.

“Community college faculty and high school teachers in Maryland will benefit from this professional growth opportunity through five days of rigorous instruction followed by a year of facilitated coaching and high quality resources to improve classroom pedagogy,” said Katharine Oliver, assistant state superintendent for career and college readiness.

Combining strong command of content with effective pedagogy was at the heart of another NSF-funded initiative designed to improve science instruction, this one at El Camino College in California.

Under a $340,000 grant that ran for four years, the Science FEST (Future Elementary School Teachers) program used an intensive, immersive approach to help community college students acquire more science knowledge and effectively convey it in the classroom. Over the course of 16 weeks, students were required to study and master a science topic, write an instructional module on it and then teach the module in an elementary school classroom.

The content arm was headed by a NASA astronomer with no background in pedagogy; the teaching portion was headed by Judy Kasabian, the grant’s principal investigator and a veteran El Camino math instructor, who has no background in science. Their mutually exclusively backgrounds helped them come to an important conclusion, Kasabian said.

“What we found that was so important is that you really need both pieces,” she said. “You need someone who really understands the content piece, and you need someone who understands the pedagogy piece. You need both of those experts to make it work.”

The Science FEST program also used intensive feedback to help prospective teachers hone their classroom skills. As the student teachers taught their lessons, both Kasabian and Perry Hacking, the content expert, observed, able to provide instant help if the student teacher stumbled in the classroom and longer-term feedback after the lesson was complete.

“What we found was that the notion of feedback, and of re-teaching, was really the essence of what we were doing,” Kasabian said. “As the students got more sophisticated, the feedback became the normal way of doing things. The students were not afraid of feedback.”

But perhaps the best feedback came from the principal of an elementary school where El Camino students taught some fifth-graders their science modules. About a year later, the principal told Kasabian that the fifth-graders were the district’s top science performers on standardized tests.

“I don’t know if I could get a better compliment,” she said. Kasabian is now working on another grant to improve math instuction.

An NSF Advanced Technological Education grant has also had a lasting effect at Austin Community College in Texas. There, the GET SMART (Get an Education and Teach: Science and Math Articulations on the Right Track) program was designed to address the shortage of well-prepared math and science teachers in central Texas. The program’s bedrock was twofold: strong instruction in teaching math and science and articulation agreements forged with nearby four-year colleges, where students could earn a teaching degree.

“The hope was that we would get people to stay in the area after they earned their degree,” said Alice Sessions, a biology professor and principal investigator for the NSF grant. “It was also to help students get that fundamental coursework in science and math.”

The program had partners on both ends of the educational spectrum. It reached articulation agreements with four four-year colleges to help prospective math and science teachers transfer, complete their bachelor’s degrees and obtain their teaching licenses. ACC also collaborated with four public school districts to allow prospective teachers to observe teachers working in classrooms.

GET SMART started small. Only eight students enrolled the first year in 2003, requiring the college to grant a waiver to offer the initial courses. But it grew quickly, and more than 200 students are enrolled in its education courses today, Sessions said.

More importantly, the program evolved into a full-fledged degree program. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board incorporated key elements of the program into an associate of arts in teaching degree program that was established in the state in 2005. The AAT program mirrors the GET SMART program and is now offered statewide. Graduates are guaranteed admission to any Texas four-year college with junior standing.

Sessions said students are still drawn to the teaching program, despite the fact that some school districts are laying off teachers amid sagging tax collections.

“A lot of our students are interested in elementary education, and those teachers are not being laid off,” she said.

The college is beginning to collect data measuring one of GET SMART’s chief goals: keeping talented teachers in central Texas, Sessions said. Anecdotally, that part of the program seems to be working.

“The paradigm is changing,” Sessions said. “As teachers get into the classroom, our college is being fully represented. I would love to see it continue to grow.”

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