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STEM Outreach: Noyce Scholars master, teach science and math

  • Gearing up
    Gearing up  Noyce Scholar Robin Shaulis '11 (front) demonstrates seine-hauling technique to students at a GEAR-UP academy at VIMS. GEAR-UP is a college readiness program for students in high-needs schools. Shaulis is a member of the William & Mary School of Education class of 2012, majoring in biology education.  Photo by Kevin Goff
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Editor's note:  This is one of a series of stories from Ideation magazine on the various STEM-outreach initiatives at William & Mary, programs that reach out beyond the walls of campus to increase understanding and appreciation of the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering and math. The full series of stories is available here.

America needs more good, seasoned K-12 STEM teachers—a set of professionals who not only understand science and math, but who also know how to make other people understand science and math.

“An expert teacher needs to do both,” said Paul Heideman. “Not having the content knowledge or not having the beginnings of expertise in pedagogy—both of those things are bad.”

It’s the goal of the Robert Noyce Scholars Program to produce professionals who can do both, says Heideman, professor of biology at William & Mary—and to keep them in the profession. Heideman is one of the principal investigators of William & Mary’s Noyce Scholar Program. The management team for the program is made up of faculty from both Arts & Sciences and the School of Education. Heideman said the William & Mary Noyce Scholars Program is one of more than 100 such Noyce initiatives around the country. All Noyce Scholars Programs are funded by the National Science Foundation.

More math and science teachers needed

“The whole intent of the program nationwide is to try to get more science and math teachers,” Heideman said. “It’s been very popular with Congress. They want teachers who are much better prepared in their content area and who are much better prepared to operate in high-need settings.”

He explained that the program leads science and math majors in Arts & Sciences through the teacher certification process. Each Noyce scholar receives a scholarship of $5,000 per semester in return for a pledge to teach a STEM subject in a high-need school. Heideman said the program offers one- and two-year tracks, as well as a five-year arrangement that leads to a master’s degree from the School of Education as well as a bachelor of science. Noyce alumni are asked to teach for a year for every semester of scholarship support they receive.

Many William & Mary students become Noyce Scholars after getting some teaching experience through summer internships offered by Teachers for a Competitive Tomorrow, a “sister program” funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

Heideman says that William & Mary’s science and math majors tend to be strong in their content areas, but cautions that knowing the science isn’t the same thing as being able to teach the science.

“The research on experts and expertise says that experts are not necessarily good teachers,” he said. “If you want an expert to be a good teacher, they have to learn to be a good teacher. In fact, experts can be terrible teachers, because they don’t recognize how novices think anymore.”

Pedagogy and practicum components

The program has several components to help Noyce scholars on their way to become excellent STEM teachers. Marguerite Mason and Juanita Jo Matkins, science- and math-education specialists in the School of Education, conduct pedagogy components, while Kevin Goff, also of the School of Education, offers a practicum experience in teaching science and math in high-need schools.

 Heideman says William & Mary’s Noyce Scholars Program has 10 students each year. In early 2012, 15 Noyce alumni were teaching math, chemistry, biology, earth sciences or physics in grades 6-12.

“We promised the NSF to support 40 over the five years of the grant. We are on pace to do a little bit better than that,” he said. Results of the William & Mary group seem to be in line with national trends for Noyce Scholars.

“School administrators like hiring Noyce scholars. They find that they are more likely to be effective; they move into leadership roles faster than their peers,” Heideman said.

The Noyce Scholars team is starting to discuss a second, assessment -based, phase of the program to evaluate which of the educational models work best. Heideman said they also want to assess retention, one of the knottiest issues in STEM education.

“Right now about half of the science and math teachers end up leaving the profession within five years,” he said. “The first year, especially, is tough. Being a first-year teacher is really hard. You’re doing a lot of stuff for the first time, you’re dealing with a lot of classroom issues and you’re dealing with all this new preparation. It can be so discouraging that people drop out who would be just fine if they just stuck it out.”

Getting through that first bumpy year

To help Noyce Scholars prepare for that first bumpy year or two, the W&M Noyce program incorporates a teaching practicum course that gives students experience, especially in high-need settings. The course outlines realistic expectations for gaining expertise in teaching and emphasizes practical application of their formal coursework in the School of Education. In addition, Heideman teaches a 1-credit course titled How Students Learn. The course applies findings from cognitive psychology and neuroscience to help teachers understand learning, memory, and expertise. The class discusses professional-improvement strategies such as “deliberate practice,” which he explains as “recognizing that you’re not strong enough in one particular area of your work, and paying attention to what works and what doesn’t.”

There’s another reason to encourage STEM teachers to stay the course: Teachers don’t become truly expert until they have several years of experience.

“All the research says that really good potential teachers are going to become expert teachers sometime around their eighth, ninth, tenth year of teaching,” Heideman said. “They may be quite good much earlier, but for true expertise and people who can be great examples who mentor others as experts, that’s going to take eight or ten years.”