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Strengthening K-12 science education through teacher development

1 March 2012

Teaching science is challenging—which is why it's important to help teachers develop their skills and learn new ones.

By Julie Nucci The US needs scientifically literate and curious citizens now more than ever. In his January 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama said, “I also hear from many business leaders who want to hire in the United States but can’t find workers with the right skills. Growing industries in science and technology have twice as many openings as we have workers who can do the job. Think about that—openings at a time when millions of Americans are looking for work. It’s inexcusable.

And we know how to fix it.” US economic and employment expansion are even more dependent on qualified science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) job candidates than the president suggests. According to Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited, released in 2011, “The Gathering Storm committee concluded that a primary driver of the future economy and concomitant creation of jobs in the 21st century will be innovation, largely derived from advances in science and engineering. While only 4 percent of the nation’s work force is composed of scientists and engineers, this group disproportionately creates jobs for the other 96 percent.”[1]

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology clearly linked those economic challenges to K-12 education. Its 2010 report Prepare and Inspire: K-12 Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) for America’s Future states, “STEM education will determine whether the United States will remain a leader among nations and whether we will be able to solve immense challenges in such areas as energy, health, environmental protection, and national security.”[2] As highlighted in the 2011 Gathering Storm report, the original 2007 Gathering Storm committee put numbers to the need and unanimously recommended the following as two of its highest priorities:

  • Provide 10 000 new mathematics and science teachers each year by funding competitively awarded 4-year scholarships for US citizens at US institutions that offer special programs leading to core degrees in mathematics, science, or engineering accompanied by a teaching certificate. On graduation, participants would be required to teach in a public school for 5 years ….
  • Strengthen the skills of 250 000 current teachers by such actions as subsidizing the achievement of master’s degrees (in science, mathematics, or engineering) and participation in workshops, and create a world-class mathematics and science curriculum available for voluntary adoption by local school districts throughout the nation.[3]

Strengthening the skills of those current teachers will also help reduce attrition, an important issue since STEM teachers are so hard to replace. A 2010 national study by Ashley Keigher and Freddie Cross[4] showed that 9% of science teachers annually left the profession in 2008–09. Attrition rates from 1988 to 2005 ranged between 5.5 and 7.5%. The main reasons science teachers gave for leaving the profession were maximum potential salary, student discipline problems, and few opportunities to receive useful content-focused professional development.[5]

According to the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2012, “In 2007 … 77% of science teachers in public middle and high schools said they had received professional development in their subject matter during the previous 12 months.”[6] Figure 1 shows that only 29% of those science teachers received 33 hours or more of professional development.

In addition to contributing to teacher attrition, insufficient professional development for teachers may also hamper school change, as research has suggested that 80 hours or more may be required to affect teacher knowledge and practice.

It is highly unlikely that the number of science teachers who take professional development courses will increase in 2012. Because of the crisis in education funding nationwide, money for professional development is likely to be one of the first budget items eliminated, since the most pressing educational concern often is keeping teachers in the classroom.

But insufficient teacher professional development, with its concomitant increase in teacher attrition, will become an even bigger problem with broad ramifications as the new Next Generation Science Standards, currently under development, are implemented. The NGSS is being created from A Framework for K-12 Science Education, released by the National Research Council. The framework “emphasizes that learning about science and engineering involves integration of the knowledge of scientific explanations (that is, content knowledge) and the practices needed to engage in scientific inquiry and engineering design.”[7]

As one of approximately 30 people on the New York State leadership team that is developing the NGSS, I am currently assessing the new documents and adapting them for the state. As a trained research scientist with a keen interest in K-12 education, I am thrilled at the strong focus on developing students’ science and engineering practices and the diminished focus on teaching broad and shallow content knowledge.

The new standards are intended to move K-12 instruction away from the content-driven, often frustrating, passive learning experience not at all representative of what scientists and engineers actually do. Instead, they provide a model that more accurately depicts how scientists and engineers work. For students to truly experience and enjoy science, they must learn to design reliable experiments and test their ideas, collect and represent data, evaluate uncertainties and assumptions, revise their ideas in light of new data, and communicate with each other.[8]

Most middle and high school physical science teachers, however, are ill-equipped to implement the fundamental changes necessary to improve student outcomes in science. Teachers have not honed their own scientific abilities—many did not receive science process skills training—and are working with 19th-century content. As such, they have much to learn themselves before they can even begin to take on the challenge of effectively cultivating those skills in their students, as will be mandated by the NGSS. Without an increased focus on professional development, implementing the promising new standards could be thwarted by the inability of teachers to teach to them. It is all-important to recognize that before you can change the classroom and the experience for the students, you need to change the teacher.

A high-quality laboratory program will be needed to successfully implement the NGSS, with its strong focus on science and engineering process skills development. America’s Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science, released in 2005, brings to light further challenges. One of its seven conclusions states that for most students, “the quality of current laboratory experiences is poor.” The report points out that the limited lab activities available “do not help them to fully understand science process.”[9]

Another of its conclusions says, “Improving high school science teachers’ capacity to lead laboratory experiences effectively is critical to advancing the educational goals of these experiences. This would require major changes in undergraduate science education, including providing a range of effective laboratory experiences for future teachers and developing more comprehensive systems of support.” The report notes that current “professional development opportunities for science teachers are limited in quality, availability, and scope and place little emphasis on laboratory instruction.”[10]

There is one final, critical issue that must be addressed to bring the NGSS into successful practice in US science classrooms. The report Reaching the Critical Mass states, “Funding available per class for equipment and supplies has fallen from about $300 in 1987 to about $250 in 2005. After adjusting for inflation, physics teachers have less than half of the funds available to support the purchase of equipment and supplies than they did twenty years ago.”[11] Teachers will need access to quality hardware and lab activities that will develop students’ science process skills. To best interest students in STEM careers, the activities should incorporate the science and technology that students encounter on a daily basis.

Four measures are necessary to reforming K-12 science education and ensuring the future of a STEM-based economy: attracting people into the profession of science teaching, reforming the K-12 curriculum to make it more reflective of the process of science, reforming teacher training and providing professional development to current teachers that improves their content knowledge and science process skills, and creating laboratory experiences consistent with the NGSS model for teaching and learning science.

Tackling those issues is a daunting task. Fortunately, several existing model programs already address them. The PhysTEC (Physics Teacher Education Coalition) project has successfully placed a cohort of science and engineering undergraduates into the profession of physics teaching. The physical science education program at Rutgers University, led by Eugenia Etkina, is an effective teacher education project consistent with the goals of the NGSS.

Since its start in 2001, the CNS Institute for Physics Teachers (CIPT) at Cornell University has been helping to build the STEM workforce by improving high school physics education and enhancing student interest in science. Approximately 1800 teachers worldwide have participated in more than 80 intensive training workshops, and more than 230 teachers have attended CIPT graduate courses. With the training comes access to Cornell's lending library, which provides teachers with more than 40 up-to-date, engaging physics lab activities free of charge. Since the 2005–06 school year, the activities have been used more than 50 000 times. Figure 2 shows that student usage of lab activities has increased annually.

The CIPT model has expanded to several universities across the US, Puerto Rico, Singapore, and Qatar. Its benefits have had a profound trickling effect across New York State, according to physics teacher Teresa Mann of Oriskany High School: 'It is so effective that the teachers who do attend share their learning with other physics teachers, and we all are influenced.'

The CIPT at Cornell has been funded by a nonrenewable NSF grant that expired in September 2011. Despite the success and impact of the program, it will end in September 2012 due to lack of funding.

High-quality teacher professional development programs are more important than ever as we look toward the upcoming implementation of the NGSS. If we truly want to offer US children an effective science and engineering education, then generous and consistent funding is needed for programs that attract undergraduate students into the science teaching profession, reform teacher education, and provide science teachers with high-quality professional development and classroom resources.

Julie Nucci is an adjunct professor of materials science and engineering and the director of the CNS Institute for Physics Teachers at Cornell University. You can reach her at


  • 1.  Members of the 2005 Rising Above the Gathering Storm Committee, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5, condensed version (prepared for the presidents of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine), National Academies Press, Washington, DC (2011), p. 4.
  • 2.  President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Prepare and Inspire: K-12 Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) for America’s Future, PCAST, Washington, DC (2010), p. vii.
  • 3.  Ref. 1, p. 8.
  • 4.  A. Keigher, F. Cross, Teacher Attrition and Mobility: Results From the 2008-09 Teacher Follow-up Survey, NCES 2010-353, National Center for Education Statistics, Washington, DC (August 2010).
  • 5.  R. M. Ingersoll, H. May, The Magnitude, Destinations, and Determinants of Mathematics and Science Teacher Turnover, CPRE Research Report RR-66, Consortium for Policy Research in Education, Philadelphia (2010).
  • 6.  National Science Board, Science and Engineering Indicators 2012, NSB 12-01, National Science Foundation, Arlington, VA (2012), p. 1-5.
  • 7.  National Research Council, Committee on a Conceptual Framework for New K-12 Science Education Standards, A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas, National Academies Press, Washington, DC (2012), p. 1-3.
  • 8.  E. Etkina et al., Phys. Rev. ST Phys. Ed. Res. 2, 020103 (2006).
  • 9.  National Research Council, Committee on High School Science Laboratories: Role and Vision, America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science, S. R. Singer, M. L. Hilton, H. A. Schweingruber, eds., National Academies Press, Washington, DC (2005), p. 6.
  • 10.  Ref. 9, p. 7.
  • 11.  M. Neuschatz, M. McFarling, S. White, Reaching the Critical Mass: The Twenty Year Surge in High School Physics, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD (2008), p. iv.
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