Monday, December 29, 2008

U.S. needs science and math teachers

Yet another study has come out that confirms what many others have concluded over the past couple years, and that is U.S. middle schools and high schools need many more teachers over the next decade. Specifically, it is estimated that schools are going to need some 200,000 plus science and math teachers to fill in positions. Keep in mind that it is already a bad situation in middle schools, where surveys have shown more than 40% of science teachers are not certified in science, but have been quickly converted from other areas of study they were originally trained in. This does not bode well for the U.S., nor for children, who need to be prepared for a globally competitive economy which, of course, is becoming more and more dependent on science and math. The need for massive teacher recruitment, training, and retention is upon us.

President-elect Barack Obama has identified this issue as one of his priorities for education when he officially takes office. Because of economic conditions, it is unclear what is fiscally possible because he would like to offer up to 40,000 scholarships for science and math teachers who would, in return, commit three years of teaching in high-needs schools. There would be a focus on teacher support and mentoring, seeing how something like 40% of new teachers leave the profession within three years (which is why I always scratch my head when I hear so many people complain how easy teaching is and how easy teachers have it, but that's just me). This is an ambitious plan that may or may not happen because there will likely be no money available for so many scholarships, so alternatives need to be figured out, stat.

One option is the concept of virtual science departments, which is something I am very interested in and have begun to think about, along with a number of education professors and think-tanks. There needs to be a paradigm shift in education that makes better use of technologies that already exist and can help expand educational opportunities and level the playing field so rural and inner-city children have similar learning experiences to those from wealthier suburban schools. In addition, the possibility to begin personalizing education to better-match individuals interests, and therefore increase student engagement and learning in and out of schools, will become a reality. I will be posting more about this in the future, as well as remote science experiments being developed for a global iLabs Network, being developed by MIT and Northwestern University. This network will allow high schools and universities to access physical experiments, for which they do not have the resources to do, from other locations and facilities that do have the required hardware and software, via the Internet. This is in the first stages of development and testing, but in the next couple years will begin expanding the lists of possible experiments all schools have available to them.

There is so much to do, and little time in which to do it, if the U.S. is remain at the top level of science, engineering and technological innovation, and have a work force that can keep the country competitive with good jobs in the future.

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