Immersive program aims to empower next generation of science teachers

Contact: Erin Flynn

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Science-related jobs are among the fastest growing in the United States, but the country is facing a shortage of workers to fill them. The Pathways to Science Teaching program at Western Michigan University looks to change that by making science less intimidating for aspiring teachers.

"We're really trying to get to the root cause of why, for most students, science is not a pleasant experience. We think a big part of that is that teachers themselves are not comfortable doing science," says Dr. Steve Bertman, professor of environment and sustainability.

Students record data on the banks of a river while two other students collect samples in the water.

Students collect water samples.

"Working with future teachers means we amplify the program's impact one thousand-fold, because every teacher is going to encounter thousands of students over their career, and if they can excite an interest in those kids in pursuing STEM careers, we've done our job," adds Dr. Heather Petcovic, chair of the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences.

Funded by the National Science Foundation's Improving Undergraduate Stem Education: Pathways into Geoscience program, Pathways to Science Teaching is an opportunity for students pursuing careers in education to immerse themselves in the scientific method.

"It's an authentic research experience where they have to wrestle with the same things we (as scientists) do day in and day out with the nuances and messiness of nature," says Dr. Steve Kaczmarek, associate professor of geology. "The hypothesis is that having that authentic experience is going to help them identify more as scientists and be less afraid to engage in those sorts of activities in their own classroom."

The 10-week summer program is focused on water quality research, giving students the opportunity to design and carry out a research study, develop and teach water science lessons in youth summer camps on campus, and write and submit papers to a professional conference.

Because K-12 science teachers often work on limited budgets, students in the cohort don't use any high-tech machines or techniques; they roll up their sleeves for good old-fashioned "dirt work."

"We go into the field and use little chemical kits; we use nets and we look with our hands at the kind of macroinvertebrates that are in the sediments. So it's all very approachable stuff," Kaczmarek says.

A student holds up an instrument with water in it, examining it for small organisms.

Jovaughn Carver, right, looks for macroinvertebrates in a sample collected by a camper.

Back inside the classroom, emeritus researcher Dr. Paul Vellom and Kalamazoo Public Schools master teachers Valerie Long and Kevin Koch, who are Western alumni, help students create lesson plans and connect their science training to teaching. The ultimate goal is to prepare the students for the next step in their careers: leading a classroom of their own.

"When they come out on the other end of the program, they've had a summer job and they've had all these great experiences, which they can then use when they're applying for teaching positions," says Petcovic. "It's really the life experience that we want to stick with them when they've finished the program."

"It definitely reinforces what I want to do," adds Keelin Markou, a biology and integrated science major in the 2021 cohort who applied for the program to get teaching experience. "Working with the campers made me realize I definitely want to work with kids and teach."

Markou designed a summer camp lesson on aquifers, helping campers construct models out of ice cream and toppings to make the lesson more palatable. Another lesson had kids hunting for tiny creatures in water samples from nearby ponds. Both campers and teachers excitedly logged the various macroinvertebrates—such as fly larvae and water beetles—they found hiding beneath rocks and vegetation in their containers.

Lauri Davis, a graduate student pursuing a doctorate in science education, has been the program coordinator since 2019. She's seen the impact the experience can have on students.

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"I'm still in touch with several students from the 2019 cohort, and for many of them, the program was life-changing," Davis says. "We had an elementary education major who really didn't like science before she went into this, and now she just got a job and is trying to incorporate this into her lesson plan."

The third and final cohort funded by the NSF grant just wrapped up its work. Now, Bertman, Kaczmarek, Petcovic and Vellom will do their own research to determine if the project confirmed their initial hypothesis.

"What we want to do is draw out what the most impactful project elements are and then figure out if there are ways we can move those into the students' regular coursework or regular curriculum," Petcovic says. "If it turns out we can't disentangle those things and the whole program is impactful, then the question becomes where we get the funding to build a 'Pathways 2.0' and continue the program in some version."

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A group photo of students.

Some members of the 2021 cohort pose for a picture after spending the day collecting water samples on the Kalamazoo River.