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Professional Opinion

6 ways to improve professional development in STEM

Districts team up to build cross-curricular content knowledge
Larry Plank is director of K-12 STEM education in Hillsborough County Public Schools (Fla.). Tomeka F. Thompson is the MSP program coordinator in Polk County Public Schools (Fla.).
Larry Plank is director of K-12 STEM education in Hillsborough County Public Schools (Fla.). Tomeka F. Thompson is the MSP program coordinator in Polk County Public Schools (Fla.).

High-quality instruction in science, math, engineering and technology requires both teaching expertise and content knowledge. Yet, at the elementary school level, many teachers haven’t had specialized education or training in science.

At the secondary level, studies show that about 33 percent of middle school math and science teachers and 30 percent of high school chemistry and physics teachers didn’t major in these fields and don’t have certificates to teach them.

In 2014, Hillsborough County Public Schools and Polk County Public Schools—neighboring districts in Florida—received a three-year, $4.5 million Math-Science Partnership Grant from the Florida Department of Education. The purpose of our grant project, Accelerating Maximum Potential in STEM (AMP-STEM), is to increase teachers’ content knowledge and their ability to create high-quality, standards-based, integrated STEM lessons for grades 3 through 12.

AMP-STEM has three components: Summer Institutes, STEM Certification Courses and STEM Writer Academies.

Learning from our neighbors

Our teachers have made great strides in developing their STEM content knowledge and teaching skills. We have also learned a few lessons along the way. Here are some of them:

  • Take a constructivist approach. In traditional “sit and get” PD, it’s easy to overwhelm teachers with content or pedagogy. Instead, we conduct PD within a constructivist framework to actively engage and challenge teachers to think at higher levels.
  • Create inquiry-based learning experiences. We want our teachers to use the 5E instructional model (engage, explore, explain, elaborate, evaluate), so we use this framework to deliver our content training. This not only makes the training more engaging, but it makes it easier for teachers to then apply these strategies with their students.
  • Use the same tools student will be using. As part of these inquiry-based learning experiences, we use the same tools we expect teachers to use in their classrooms. With these tools, teachers can see what it’s like to collect, analyze and report on data. As a result, they can now better plan for student questions and misconceptions, and they have a better grasp of the real-world applications of these tools.
  • Emphasize the content, not the technology. Technology—even if it’s designed to be user-friendly—is still intimidating for some teachers. By allowing teachers to learn how to operate technologies, such as probeware, within the context of a STEM lesson, it feels more natural and less like “tech training.”
  • Clearly describe your courses, including prerequisite knowledge and skills. Early on we discovered that we didn’t market our STEM Certification Courses very well. As a result, we didn’t fill the courses and some participants didn’t have the base level of content knowledge expected.
  • Learn from each other. We often try to solve challenges on our own—when the solution may be as close as the district next door. Teachers from neighboring districts can sit together and realize they face similar struggles, and collaborate to find a solution.

Eye on achievement

Thanks to AMP-STEM, our teachers are increasing their cross-curricular content knowledge and strategies for integrating STEM concepts into their classrooms. In our Summer Institutes, teachers’ pre- and post-test results show that we are having a measurable impact on their content knowledge.

Similarly, with our STEM Certification Courses, we’ve increased the number of certified mathematics, chemistry and physics teachers in our middle and high schools. As we complete the third year of our grant, we look forward to seeing the impact this will have on student achievement. 

Larry Plank is director of K-12 STEM education in Hillsborough County Public Schools (Fla.). Tomeka F. Thompson is the MSP program coordinator in Polk County Public Schools (Fla.).