WMU News

NSF grant helps improve teaching of middle school science

Oct. 29, 2002

KALAMAZOO -- The mantra is "enlist, equip, empower." The mission is to improve the quality of middle school science teachers in Michigan.

With nearly $1 million in funding from the National Science Foundation, the WMU Mallinson Institute for Science Education has embarked on a plan to alleviate Michigan's critical shortage of qualified middle school science teachers. The problem is expected to increase during the next decade as retirements of current teachers result in an even greater dearth of qualified middle school science teachers.

"Enlist, Equip and Empower: An Integrated Program for Middle School Science Teachers"--dubbed "E3" for short--is revamping the way future science teachers are prepared. The project is a collaborative effort involving the Mallinson Institute and WMU's biological sciences and education faculty as well as faculty and staff from Lake Michigan College, Kalamazoo Valley Community College, and Kalamazoo, Portage, and Vicksburg public schools.

Because research shows that 57.2 percent of America's middle school science teachers are teaching "out of field"--not having majored in science in college or having certification to teach the subject-- E3's leaders say preparing teachers to specifically teach science at the middle school level is crucial. Almost all teacher certification programs in Michigan are offered in elementary and secondary education, often leaving teachers who go on to teach at the middle school level inadequately prepared.

"If they are prepared to teach at the elementary level, they don't get enough science, and at the secondary level, they tend to specialize in one science area," says Dr. David W. Rudge, assistant professor of biological sciences and one of the principal investigators of the project. "We're hoping to better prepare future middle school science teachers by providing them with a stronger science background that will allow them to teach a broader range of subjects."

To bolster the number of future science educators, recruitment will be aimed not only at traditional education majors, but also students who began careers in engineering or the medical sciences, but later found it wasn't for them.

"People who originally enter college intending to become doctors, nurses or engineers are often caring individuals with strong backgrounds in science for whom a shift to teaching at the middle school level represents a natural alternative," Rudge says.

The core science curriculum for middle school science teachers will include courses currently offered through the Mallinson Institute as part of the elementary education certification program. These small, 24-student sections feature open-ended problem solving environments that invite students to participate in the process of science and reflect on how they themselves learn.

"The fact is that people generally teach the way they themselves were taught. We are asking future teachers who take these courses to depart from the way they originally learned science in middle and high school," says Rudge. "Learning science should be a process of discovery, not a process of memorizing sets of disconnected facts to be forgotten once the test is over."

The empowerment component of the E3 program aims to strengthen the teaching of current middle school science teachers in the Kalamazoo, Portage and Vicksburg schools through professional development and mentoring.

"We need to support these teachers once they are in the field," Rudge notes. "Many of these teachers become frustrated in their first years, but by fostering the development of learning communities of science teachers in multiple school districts and offering other professional development opportunities, such as workshops offered through WMU's Center for Science Education, we hope to provide teachers with the support they need to thrive."

The program will employ a teacher-in-residence selected from experienced middle school science teachers to provide a "reality check" to guide the program's development and assess its effectiveness. Candis Collick, a teacher at Kalamazoo's Milwood Middle School has been selected as the program's first teacher-in-residence.

WMU's E3 program is serving as a model for similar efforts elsewhere, with requests for copies of the program coming from other colleges and universities. Resources for prospective teachers will be placed on the program's Web site at <www.wmich.edu/science/e3>.

"Research suggests that a comprehensive approach such as ours leads to improved scores on teacher certification exams, lower teacher attrition rates and improved students scores on local, state and national standardized exams," says Rudge.

Media contact: Matt Gerard, 269 387-8400, matthew.gerard@wmich.edu

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