The science of teaching science: Professional development for STEM educators

Professor and three college students in a science lab looking at beakers

Teaching a STEM subject—science, technology, engineering, and math—can be a challenge at the university level, even for seasoned educators. Professors can find themselves with a class of students of varying levels of prior knowledge and understanding, so inclusive teaching can be difficult. An educator may have to contend with students who aren’t majoring in a STEM field and who may struggle to stay engaged with challenging concepts outside of their areas of interest. Professional development opportunities offer tremendous resources for educators in situations like these, helping them improve their educational practice.

Pearson’s “Learning Makes Us” webinar series is digital professional development dedicated to providing exactly these sorts of resources. Educators who participate in the webinars have the opportunity to earn Acclaim competency badges. These digital credentials are easily inserted into a resume or a social media profile, and provide instantly verifiable proof of competency in a variety of subject areas.

“Learning Makes Us” Science/ECS Webinars

Topics covered in the life and physical sciences area include biology, chemistry, and anatomy and physiology. Additional webinars cover topics related to engineering, genetics, microbiology, nutrition, environmental science and computer science. Over a thousand professors and educators have registered for access to the webinars to date. Here’s a look at a few of the institutions and topics represented in this series:

Chemistry at UC Santa Barbara

The strength of the webinars lies in the insight and innovation of the professors who lead them. Dr. Paula Bruice, Professor at University of California, Santa Barbara leads the webinar, “Discouraging Memorization in Organic Chemistry.” Dr. Bruice had experimented with various ways of organizing her organic chemistry course so her students would gain a genuine understanding of the subject rather than just the ability to memorize facts, formulas, and chemical relationships. Her resulting course structure allowed her to create opportunities for problem-solving experiences and exercises, while still presenting course material in line with the MCAT and DAT tests her students were preparing to take. Her course was a tremendous success, according to her students.

Cognitive Science at Gulf Coast University

Dr. Laura Frost of Gulf Coast University applies insights drawn from cognitive science to the strategies practitioners can use in their classrooms. She was frustrated by the way students would prepare for evaluations by re-reading a textbook and reviewing class notes—methods that tend to prove ineffective. Frost’s seminar is driven by the idea that genuine understanding of a subject area—not memorization of instructional materials—leads to competence. Her webinar “Applying the Science of Learning to Your Classroom” uses examples from introductory chemistry to share new strategies with practitioners, and it offers suggestions about how these practices can best be implemented.

Environmental Science at Duke and University of Colorado

Dr. Jason Neff of the University of Colorado at Boulder and Professor Norm Christensen of Duke University prove that fostering engagement is a requirement for any form of mastery, and maintaining engagement is key for meaningful student progress in the sciences. Their webinar, entitled “Strategies for Improving Student Engagement and Success in an Introductory Environmental Science Course” discusses methods for increasing student engagement and improving student performance. The webinar shares practices for creating and encouraging student engagement in courses that are likely to include students from different backgrounds, skills, and interest levels. It also offers tactics educators can use to make sure all students stay engaged and display increasing understanding of the course material, rather than simply teaching exclusively to the most engaged students and hoping the rest will catch up.

STEM Challenges and the Digital Adjunct Solution

Many adjunct professors labor under heavy course loads, compounded with department meetings and face-time with their students. And according to a 2015 survey led by the University of Louisville, many early respondents reported that the main problem with attending seminars stemmed from the lack of weekend or evening seminars, when they would less likely to be teaching. Survey respondents also said it was a challenge to consistently communicate with their adjuncts about these programs, mostly because these professors’ work schedules vary greatly from one another and some do not even have a university email.

Yet adjuncts make up a large portion of most university faculty, teaching between sixty and seventy percent of all courses. They’re largely responsible for the way course matter is taught at their universities, and yet they’re rarely given opportunities to share best practices, learn new strategies, and improve on or develop their own classroom instruction. Furthermore, as an educator, teaching a STEM subject at the university level presents unique challenges. Due to limited resources and a demanding schedule, adjuncts may suffer for lack of opportunities to compare best practices, ask advice, and learn new strategies. And though more and more universities are offering funds to help promote adjunct professional development—in 2015 the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles reported that 13.5 percent of adjuncts had access to professional development funds—online web series may be the most effective answer.

Pearson’s webinar series offers educators the chance to connect with colleagues and create a forum for questions and discussions, and it encourages educators to collaborate. The best professional development yields measurable results. Primarily, the hope is that after participating in professional development training, educators will learn new skills that allow them to fine-tune their instructional leadership strategies. Ultimately, however, the measure of successful professional development is demonstrable improvement in student performance and understanding.

Digital professional development offers invaluable dialogue with colleagues who have struggled to affect student performance, and thus understand exactly what challenges are inherent in STEM education at the university level. The result of this kind of collaborative work is community building—something that can go a tremendous way toward increasing the quality of a dedicated educator’s work, and the performance of his or her students.

 

References

Alan Neuhauser, “Students Want STEM, but Schools Can’t Find the Teachers,” U.S. News & World Report, May 19, 2016.

Colleen Flaherty, “Developing Adjuncts,” Inside Higher Ed. August 27, 2015.

Mary Gray, “STEM in Higher Education: Examining Why the “M” (Mathematics) Matters,” Higher Ed Jobs

Michael Hart, “Badges: A New Measure of Professional Development,” Campus Technology, January 14, 2015.

Shapiro, D. (2012, March 2). Books & Resources. Retrieved June 08, 2016, from http://www.nsta.org/publications/news/story.aspx?id=59234