Feature Story

Solutions to the STEM teacher shortage

by Anne Field

STEM teacher solutions

A variety of organizations and programs are introducing or expanding different ways to attract, train and retain STEM educators.

It's a question of increasing urgency: How to attract enough students to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and meet the skyrocketing demand for jobs in those fields. In computer science alone, the Bureau of Labor Statistics foresees 1.4 million CS-related jobs available by 2020—and just 400,000 college graduates with the requisite background for those positions.

"Everything from fighting climate change to treating diseases—all these things require STEM skills," says Talia Milgrom-Elcott, founder and executive director of 100Kin10. "And we don't have the people needed to fill the demand."

See also: Cisco loves STEM: Coding education important for all ages

But that's only part of the problem. Increasing that pool of STEM-savvy workers means having a sufficient population of educators capable of imparting the necessary, relevant knowledge. But there's also a too-small number of qualified instructors able to teach those subjects.

With that in mind, a variety of organizations have started introducing or expanding programs to attract, train and retain STEM teachers. Their approaches differ, from tapping established educators specializing in other subjects to steering undergraduates studying STEM to teaching. But they all have a similar goal. "We want teachers in classrooms who can teach kids the skills that are part of the problem-solving set needed to meet all of the most important challenges of the 21rst century," says Milgrom-Elcott.

All hands on deck

Milgrom-Elcott's 100Kin10 starts from the premise that developing more STEM teachers nationally requires the collaboration of a great many stakeholders, from K-12 schools and universities to elected officials and corporations. "This is an all hands-on deck effort," she says. More recently, it's also focused on pinpointing the root causes of the shortage.

She founded the project after President Obama's 2011 call for a national effort to build a pipeline of 100,000 STEM teachers by 2021. According to Milgrom-Elcott, the organization is now on track to meet that goal, thanks to the collaboration of some 280 players, ranging from Google and Chevron to small colleges and science museums. Now an incubated project the National Center for Civic Innovation, a nonprofit incubator in New York City, it was spun out from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, where Milgrom-Elcott was senior manager of STEM teacher initiatives, in 2014.

See also: STEM education necessary for the next generation

Recently, the project also completed a two-year effort to map the 100 or so top problems creating the teacher shortage, in an effort to get to the root causes of the crisis. While the underlying reasons range from a lack of prestige to low pay, the six most influential include student debt and such cultural issues as an emphasis on rote memorization, rather than creativity.

Another program focused on building coalitions is The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation's Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship initiative. But its emphasis is on the state level, working with universities, governors, state higher education offices, the business community, legislators and teachers' unions to put in place one-year Master's Degree programs for K-12 teachers. Currently active in Georgia and New Jersey—it's already worked in Indiana,  Michigan and Ohio--half of all newly minted teachers remain in their job five years after starting, according to Patrick Riccards, director of media relations and strategy. And of those who keep at it, 81% stay in the same school.

Recruits, who get a $30,000 fellowship in exchange for a three-year commitment to teach at a high-needs school, aren't education majors. Instead, they're recent undergraduates familiar with basic STEM concepts, professionals looking to change career paths and military veterans. To make sure graduates get jobs, while also filling the slots states need, the fellowship staff consults with local school districts to learn which disciplines are in demand. "If you graduate 50 teachers who know biology, that's not a great help if your district needs to hire for math and physics," says Riccards. After they graduate, the teachers receive three years of mentoring support.

Undergrads or experienced educators

Still other programs focus either on undergraduates or grooming existing teachers to switch to teaching STEM. UTeach, for example, which is part of the University of Texas at Austin, is a long-standing initiative that aims to attract STEM majors to become teachers with a four-year course of study that combines a STEM degree with teaching accreditation. "Our idea is that while these kids might not come to the university thinking they'd be teachers, they might make great teachers if given the opportunity," says Kimberly Hughes, director of the UTeach Institute. Now in 44 universities across the U.S., as of last year, most graduates were still teaching.

More recently, through a National Science Foundation grant, UTeach's focus has expanded to computer science teachers. It participated in developing a new Advanced Placement level high school CS course, which the educational testing nonprofit the College Board rolled out officially last year, and training for existing teachers. And, it just kicked off an effort to build a network of universities collaborating to find ways to recruit undergraduates, mid-career changers and others to become CS educators. Part of the CSforAll movement, an effort kicked off by the Obama White House, 60 representatives from 22 universities in the UTeach network and others met at the University of Colorado in February. 

On the other hand, the New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning takes the approach that it's easier to teach people the specifics of a subject than how to be good educators. With that in mind, it provides a four-week crash course in physics or chemistry to experienced teachers who have specialized in other areas. Another benefit: About one-third of teachers are black or Latino. Started in 2010, founder Robert Goodman recently launched an online course in partnership with Colorado State University Global Campus. The course material is now used in 180 countries.

Ultimately, whether this patchwork of programs is enough to make real inroads remains to be seen. "There's a lot of work still to be done," says Hughes.

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