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Focus on Education: Classroom Careers for Scientists

It was during “sharing” time in my first week as a teacher’s aide at Sunset View Elementary School in San Diego. Mike, a second-grader, shared a newspaper article about black holes. The teacher, Anne Earlywine, is one of the best I have ever seen, and I learned much of what I know about teaching from her. But she did not know much about black holes. The little astronomy I knew at the time (I was a college freshman) allowed me to engage the class in Mike’s report and give him some guidance on how to take his interest further.

For me, the lesson was this: While a deep understanding of science may not be necessary for school teachers, it sure can’t hurt.

So how can we get our school teachers to know more about science? One approach is to provide science enrichment programs for current and prospective teachers, and many such programs have had success. But there’s a second approach that deserves far more attention than it has received: providing opportunities for scientists to become classroom teachers.

The idea of putting scientists in the classroom tends to raise eyebrows, but it makes sense on many levels. For example, the United States is facing a dire shortage of teachers of any kind, let alone those with science expertise. At the same time, graduate programs are creating many more new scientists than can be accommodated on the traditional pathway to becoming a college professor. Surely these practical considerations call for making elementary and secondary teaching respectable alternative careers for scientists.

On the level of teaching excellence, most scientists are wildly enthusiastic about their subjects, so with proper training many of them could make outstanding teachers. (Yes, I know that many scientists don’t make good teachers – but I would bet that the proportion of people who can make great teachers is higher among scientists than in the public at large.) Moreover, because the traditional graduate pathway leads to a college faculty position, most people who enter science have at least some intention of teaching. In fact, many scientists have experience as instructors or teaching assistants – often more total hours of teaching experience than are required to obtain a teaching credential.

The only questions are whether scientists would be attracted to classroom careers and, if so, how to help them follow this route. From discussions with graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, I’ve learned that teaching careers would be very attractive to many scientists if just two conditions could be met:

  1. making sure that these individuals can remain respected scientists at the same time that they are teachers by, for example, providing them opportunities to stay involved in research; and
  2. providing an alternative path to teacher certification that gives all the necessary training but also recognizes the experience and advanced education that these individuals already possess.

Both conditions are more difficult to satisfy than you might guess. With respect to the first, a teaching career leaves research time only in summers and perhaps occasional hours during the academic year. In open competition for research grants, scientist-teachers would, therefore, be at a disadvantage against full-time scientific researchers. Yet there’s no shortage of research work: scientists are already overwhelmed by the enormous amount of data coming from current projects, and the situation will become more daunting in the future. A natural solution to this dilemma would be to create funding opportunities that support scientist-teachers in research and scientific development. But creating such opportunities requires widespread support from the scientific community and federal funding agencies – support that does not yet exist.

Meeting the second condition is even more challenging. A few years back, I worked on a project to create an alternative certification pathway with Catharine Garmany (University of Colorado, and a member of the ASP Board of Directors) and Richard McCray (University of Colorado, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences). Everyone we spoke to was supportive of the idea, including people at the Colorado Department of Education, the University of Colorado School of Education, and Superintendents of regional school districts. But no one had the time or energy required to push through all the bureaucratic steps involved in making the program happen (and a proposal for funding to continue our efforts was rejected).

Despite this setback, I am more convinced than ever that the time has come for efforts to make teachers out of interested scientists. I know of researchers who have already chosen this route. But if we can find a way to meet the two conditions above, I believe we’ll open floodgates through which thousands of bright students will enter teaching via graduate programs in science. These individuals will personally benefit from careers that enable them to pursue their passions for both science and teaching. Science will benefit from their work as part-time researchers and the encouragement they will provide to the next generation of scientists. The nation will benefit from a large pool of scientifically trained teachers. There’s no downside – so when do we start?

JEFF BENNETT’s first popular book, On the Cosmic Horizon, will be published by Addison Wesley in September. He is also the lead author for Addison Wesley textbooks in astronomy (The Cosmic Perspective, full and Brief editions), mathematics (Using and Understanding Mathematics), and statistics (Statistical Reasoning for Everyday Life; forthcoming). He welcomes email correspondence about these columns and other issues at jbennett@casa.colorado.edu.