John L. Pecore, Ph.D., Professor, STEM Education, University of West Florida
Jennifer C. Stark, Ph.D., Associate Professor, University of West Florida
Melissa K. Demetrikopoulos, Ph.D., Director of Scientific Communications, Institute for Biomedical Philisophy
Kwame N. Owusu-Daaku, Ph.D., Associate Professor, University of West Florida
At our university, we are focused on raising the awareness of our secondary degree programs that prepare students to be secondary STEM teachers. We have displayed posters around campus, hung banners in STEM buildings, staffed tables at major fairs, and worked with first-year advisors of freshman, first-time-in college students, and undeclared majors. Another recruitment approach included a five-minute STEM teacher recruitment presentation given in pre-calculus and trigonometry courses, which typically contain mostly freshman and sophomore students. The presentation given at both our university and a partnering college from where many students transfer, provided facts about teaching using a customizable PowerPoint from the Get the Facts Out project (Get the Facts Out, 2023).
STEM majors interested in teaching grades 6-12 are recruited to take an introductory education course during their sophomore or junior year. As recommended by Wilson and Kelley (2022), the course provides a low-stakes opportunity for STEM majors to learn about teaching before committing to the profession. Accordingly, the course engages STEM majors in authentic experiences observing, designing, and delivering inquiry-based mathematics and/or science lessons. In addition, the course addresses content on the historical and philosophical foundations of education, the relationships between schools and society including social justice issues, and effective practices for equitably engaging diverse learners.
Even though these recruitment efforts have increased the enrollment of students in our STEM teaching programs, the total number of students progressing to degree completion is still below expectations. When looking back at the teaching interest and teacher identity of 71 science and mathematics students enrolled in an introductory education course from 2017-2022, we noted that nearly all of these students were positively inclined to teach and could see themselves as teachers. Despite these favorable attitudes, less than half of the students (n=32) subsequently enrolled in the STEM methods course and continued in the preparation program, which indicates a leaking STEM teacher pathway. Such a leak points to a need to develop targeted strategies, in addition to the Noyce scholarship, to recruit early science and mathematics majors into teacher preparation programs and enhance their desire to teach in high-need schools.
This blog is about the leak of STEM teacher education students from our preparation pipeline. We share findings from our STEM preservice teacher preparation program, which we interpret in light of the concepts of teacher identity and teacher retention in STEM teacher education.
Thinking about Preparing Teachers
Teacher identity has been established by researchers as a critical component of both preservice and early career STEM teacher development (Avraamidou, 2014; Eick & Reed, 2002; Hobbs, 2013; Luehmann, 2007; Proweller & Mitchener, 2004; Sutherland et al., 2010). According to Luehmann (2007), “professional identity affords a lens in which the breadth of one’s experiences is considered in light of how they impact one’s professional practices, values, beliefs, and commitments” (p. 827). In other words, the experiences which shape the identity of new teachers can influence what they will do in their future classrooms as well as their retention in the profession.
In Noyce programs, teaching in high-need schools is a requirement upon graduation. For teachers to effectively teach in high-need contexts, they must be supported to envision themselves as educators who can deliver meaningful and equitable STEM education (Proweller & Mitchener, 2004). We embraced this idea when we developed five new secondary STEM teaching degrees at our university. These degrees were focused on providing interested students with opportunities to explore their teaching identities in local schools. The specific strategies we drew upon included the early introductory education class, followed by a STEM methods course and concurrent prerequisite practicum course, and culminated in a half-time student teaching experience. From the very first education course and throughout subsequent courses, there was an overarching goal for the students to develop knowledge and skills for teaching secondary science and mathematics to diverse learners. This goal resulted in an emphasis on different instructional approaches, including differentiated instruction and Universal Design for Learning (CAST, 2018; Tomlinson, 2017).
Oh, No! There is a Leak
As evident from the data in Table 1, most of our students who remain interested in pursuing teaching as a profession will complete the STEM methods course within three years of completing the introductory education course. During the first four years, 55 students completed an introductory education course, and 47% (n=26) have completed the STEM methods course to date. Year 3 and 4 students have a lower rate of progression (40%) than the previous two years (55% and 57%). This difference may be due to interruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic with some Year 3 and 4 students possibly having been delayed in completing the STEM methods course.
Because we are interested in preservice teacher retention, we surveyed our students using a project-specific survey on teacher identity and teaching interest. Teacher identity items asked students to respond to statements such as “Thinking of myself as a teaching professional is compatible with other aspects of my background.” Teaching interest items asked students to consider statements like “I am interested in teaching middle school” or “I am interested in teaching high school.” The survey items were vetted by a panel of experts and pilot-tested prior to their use in this study. Both the teaching interest and teacher identity scales had strong internal reliability (Cronbach’s ɑ = 0.78 and 0.87, respectively).
These surveys were included in the end-of-course evaluations in the introductory course and the STEM methods course. Participants responded to eight teacher identity statements and five teaching interest items. Each item had a five-point Likert scale (4=strongly agree, 3=somewhat agree, 2=neither agree nor disagree, 1=somewhat disagree, 0=strongly disagree). All students were given the surveys and informed that their grade would not be affected if they did or did not complete the surveys.
A composite score was calculated for each survey scale (i.e., teacher identity and teaching interest) by taking the sum of the items. The maximum composite score for the eight-item teacher identity scale was 32 points and for the five-item teaching interest scale was 20 points. Descriptive statistics were calculated for individual items and composite scores, and t-tests (assuming equal variance) compared mean composite scores between the two end-of-course surveys.
Over five years, 46 of the 71 students taking the introductory education course completed the end-of-course survey. During the same time period, 25 students took the STEM methods course and 19 completed the end-of-course survey. As shown in Table 2, the teacher identity and teaching interest composite mean scores were moderately high (24.5 and 25.3 out of 32 points for teacher identity; 15.4 and 17.0 out of 20 points for teaching interest), and composite mean scores were not significantly different between the two courses (p >0.05). This indicates that students had similarly favorable levels of identities and interests at the end of both courses. Additionally, mean individual item scores were generally at or above 3 points (somewhat agree), indicating that students agreed with most of the statements about their teacher identity or teaching interest to some degree on both surveys.
Reasons for the Leak
In order to better understand the results, the external evaluator for this Noyce grant conducted one-hour focus groups with nineteen students at the end of the STEM methods course. Comprehensive verbatim notes along with audio recordings, when all participants gave consent, were analyzed for themes.
Students reported three main themes related to the challenge of obtaining a STEM major with teaching certification: time, fit, and confidence. In terms of time, some students commented that it was hard to find time to include the education classes in their schedule, particularly the required field experiences. For example, a student shared her concern about completing the practicum, stating “I have morning classes three days a week and would not be able to finish [the required hours] in time.” Another student discussed how, “I am not sure I could handle the workload to do the teaching.” The two clinical placements are time intensive with the practicum demanding 100 classroom hours over about 10 weeks (not including the commute time) and the student teaching requiring a consistent half-day commitment five days per week for 15 weeks. Some students were concerned that completing the teaching pathway would push back their graduation dates by a semester to a year, and therefore decided to complete a traditional STEM major with the option to pursue alternative certification after graduating.
Other students realized that teaching is not a good fit for them, and they were more interested in their STEM disciplines. They shared comments such as, “It just was not the right path for me. I was not sure until this semester,” and “I did gain an interest in teaching, but I am more math oriented.” Students also commented that they felt pulled between STEM and teaching, with one student sharing “I feel pulled between math and education. They exist in separate realms, and I have to exist in both.” Furthermore, some students discussed having more confidence in their STEM classes but not understanding the education classes as much. For example, a student shared, “In math classes, I know what is going on. When I am in education classes I am pulling my hair out. I am not sure what the expectations are and worry if I am meeting them.” Even though students acknowledged these challenges, they reported that placements in diverse schools provided an opportunity to experience the realities of teaching.
Repairs and Maintenance to Prevent Leaks
To ensure that students continue to develop their identity and interest in STEM education moving ahead, we plan to make further adjustments. The purpose of the introductory education course is to help STEM majors identify if teaching is a good fit for them and to begin building their professional expertise and confidence. In this course, we intend to focus more on the development of a growth orientation so that students can set goals and recognize their own progress toward becoming a confident professional educator. While these students may have well established STEM identities developed over many years, the opportunity to consider a STEM teacher identity is often quite recent and likely undeveloped. We therefore plan to highlight the nature of teaching as a highly complex undertaking that requires time and practice to master the requisite skills.
Additionally, we seek to address student concerns about the time to completion by improving our communication with students. Our STEM teaching degrees are each 120 credit hours and can be completed in four years with effective planning. For prospective transfer students, our institution has created transfer pathways with regional and state colleges which allow students to develop their four-year degree plan prior to entering our university. Knowing that students may need additional opportunities to learn about the degree programs and ask questions, we intend to begin offering virtual information sessions for prospective transfer students.
Finally, researchers have concluded that faculty are often supportive of the teaching profession but have some inaccurate perceptions about the occupation, and underestimate how many of their students may be interested in teaching (Pearson et al., 2020). As a result, many STEM faculty do not talk about teaching as a viable career option in their advising. Although we do not have specific evidence to suggest that this is a problem at our institution, we plan to promote a positive narrative about teaching through presentations at faculty meetings, student organizations, and informal conversations with colleagues at university meetings.
Creating an Environment that is Aware of Leaks
Teaching is a rewarding and challenging profession, and because of this, we are looking at our programs comprehensively and seeking different pathways to recruit students. As we build our programs, we plan to continually monitor our students in order to determine their identity and interest levels, and track our students who do and do not complete the program.
Being responsive to students who are eligible or currently enrolled in the program will facilitate better monitoring of the leaks in the system. Furthermore, by combining assessment with program decision making, we are ensuring that we have the best pathways in place and the best means to attract students who may be interested in teaching. Our approach is much like the installation of pipes in a home – you need to know what you need (assessment), you need to ensure they they are in the proper locations (plan), and that they are installed correctly using high quality materials (program design). With attention to these areas, we will provide teachers able to meet the needs of all students.
Funding for our Tracks 1 and 4 Noyce programs is provided by National Science Foundation (NSF) grants DUE: 1660615, 1950209, and 2151061. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF.
Thanks to 2023 ARISE blog series editors Julie Luft and Erika Shugart for working with the authors. See the other blogs focused on teacher recruitment and retention by Luft and Shugart, Where to Next? Recruitment, Retention, and Induction of Science Teachers, and Positioning Universities to Recruit and Train STEM Teachers Who Stay in Rural Schools: A Collaborative Approach, by Hubbard, Franz, and Brenner.