ASU Brings a STEM Focus to Elementary Teacher Preparation

What challenge is ASU tackling? 

Many teacher preparation programs do not require rigorous coursework in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects for candidates pursuing elementary grade certification (NCTQ, 2014). There is a growing recognition, however, that academic and career success for all people is contingent on access to a strong STEM education in PK-12. Thus, there is an urgent need, albeit a challenging one, to reform teacher preparation programs in ways that provide elementary teacher candidates with the STEM content knowledge and pedagogical skills they need to prepare all students for success in the 21st century. In recognition of this need, Arizona State University (ASU) created a STEM Concentration option for its K-8 Elementary Education program in 2015. ASU designed the elementary STEM-concentration for teacher candidates at the elementary level to increase the opportunity for pre-service teachers to specialize in K-8 STEM teaching and learning.

How does the STEM-focused program work?

ASU’s Elementary Education STEM-Concentration launched in 2015, with two tracks – science and math. Building upon the mathematics and science content course requirement for all ASU Elementary Education majors (i.e., four mathematics content courses and three science/laboratory courses), the two tracks allow teacher candidates the flexibility and autonomy to pick an elementary STEM-teaching specialty in either mathematics or science. Specifically, depending on their STEM-concentration choice, pre-service teachers will elect three additional courses in either mathematics or science. Typically, pre-service teachers enroll in the mathematics and science courses required of all elementary education majors during their early undergraduate years and the STEM-concentration courses during their junior and senior years. As an added bonus, articulation between the two- and four-year teacher preparation programs at Arizona community colleges and ASU makes transfer to the STEM concentration feasible for community college and other transfer students. 

Notably, ASU has designed the program to ensure that the student teachers are taught mathematics and science content using what is known about best instructional practices for STEM, such as inquiry-based and active learning, as well as taught how to use these types of approaches in their own classrooms. The latter ability to design and deliver engaging and rigorous STEM instruction in the K-8 classroom develops within the program’s mathematics and science methods courses and the related STEM junior-year field experience and senior-year student teaching residency. As pre-service teachers learn to use technology, physical models, and representations to foster conceptual understanding of STEM notions through inquiry-based problem solving, their knowledge of STEM content also deepens. These STEM-focused tracks provide pre-service teachers with a general K-8 certification, while also allowing them to establish themselves as experts in STEM instruction.

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What is the impact of STEM-focused emphasis?

An evaluation of the ASU teacher preparation program showed its graduates to be highly successful in the classroom. The STEM program graduates are staying in the classroom. ASU has tracked the trajectories of their graduates serving in Arizona schools. Five-year longitudinal data across ASU pre-service teacher graduates show that graduates had employment and retention rates at 92 percent, well above the state average of 76 percent. Anecdotally, alumni mentioned that when they join a new school that their fellow teachers considered them the “STEM expert.” 

Moreover, veteran STEM teachers who host ASU’s candidates during the senior year practicum report an uptick in their own interest, knowledge, and skill in STEM instruction. Next steps will involve veteran STEM teachers even more strongly in the design of STEM field experiences for ASU pre-service teachers.

What’s next?

ASU students noted in an informal survey that they felt adding only nine credits did not differentiate sufficiently between the STEM concentration and the regular elementary major. Based on this input, ASU plans to add a third track – engineering in fall 2018. Engineering design-challenges are important learning opportunities for several reasons. On the one hand, these design challenges provide a meaningful context for learning to integrate STEM perspectives to solve problems using the engineering design-thinking process. On the other hand, the engineering context helps students appreciate the uses of mathematics and science in everyday life. Further, the coupling of engineering design-challenges with technology highlights technology as a silent facilitator of STEM learning. Representational technologies function as bridging analogies within the learning process by assisting learners to create meaning for abstract STEM concepts, processes, and relationships.

Moving forward, ASU wants to continue to find ways to ensure the student teachers going through their program are provided with strong STEM practicum experiences. Current efforts to involve local mathematics and science teachers as STEM mentors will expand to involving veteran teachers as co-planners of STEM field experiences. For example, ASU is envisioning creation of a developmental trajectory of learning-to-teach STEM experiences that all pre-service STEM teachers will be required to successfully complete within their STEM school-placements according to the mentor teacher’s expertise and recommendations. 

The program faculty also plan to pursue research grants to dig deeper into what elements of STEM instruction are the most impactful and which teaching practices most effectively impact achievement for K-8 students. With support from their new dean, the faculty will continue to build the program for ASU using the evidence-based practices that emerge from continuing research in this field.