In early September, my sixth grade students gathered together to watch, wide-eyed, as I used a hair dryer to float a Ping-Pong ball in mid-air. Shouts of "Can I try that?" quickly made way to more sophisticated questioning, with students wondering what would happen if they changed the temperature of the hair dryer's air, or whether they could float the ball using their own breath. This lesson is among my favorite of the year because it provides my first glimpse at the science skills students bring to our class.
The lesson also gives me a sense of our work for the year. The vague language in the first week's observations will be replaced by scientific vocabulary, and students will learn to clarify and investigate their questions about the floating ball. Then in June, I'll cross my fingers, hoping that these thoughtful, inquisitive students will have the opportunity to engage in great science classes for each of the six years remaining before high school graduation.
In Massachusetts, where science and technology innovations contribute greatly to our economy, identity, and pride, improving educational opportunities in these fields seems especially important. While recent National Assessment of Educational Progressresults show our students to be among the top performers in the country, only 42% of Massachusetts eighth graders scored proficient on the 2014 Science MCAS. The remaining 61% of students were unable to correctly answer two thirds of the test questions. Though a test is just one measure of science achievement, proficiency on that test is one of the prerequisites for success in high school science. We're lucky to have excellent teachers with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) content expertise in Massachusetts classrooms inspiring the next generation of biologists and computer scientists. However, we need many more to ensure that all kids across the Commonwealth have access to the excellent STEM education that will get them on track to choose science careers.
One of the most important steps we can take to strengthen STEM education is to invest in our teachers. This year, a partnership between Teach For America-Massachusetts and the Biogen Idec Foundation will focus on the recruitment, training, and support new STEM teachers across Massachusetts. I'm excited about the partnership because I believe that Teach For America's model of recruiting a diverse group of teachers - many who majored in STEM fields in college or who have had professional STEM experience - draws STEM subject matter experts into classrooms.
To boost the number of people with STEM expertise choosing to teach, it's critical that we show our undergraduate science majors that teaching is a meaningful, impactful, and valued career pathway that offers endless challenges and rewards as they utilize their specialized training and breadth of knowledge every day. I've seen that my biology studies in college have informed my teaching every day, from weighing the importance of concepts when time runs short to designing engaging lessons around scientific practices like collaboration and observation. Undergraduate studies in STEM are not the only components of an effective science teacher, and not all effective science teachers formally studied STEM, but it's a valuable resource here in Massachusetts we must tap.
Because teacher shortages in STEM subjects are more likely to impact low-income communities of color, increasing our STEM teaching ranks is another necessary step to improving representation of low-income and minority students in advanced studies and careers in science. Too often, low-income students, students of color, and English Language Learners, like my students, have inequitable access to STEM opportunities.
In turn, limited access to higher level coursework contributes to a lack of diversity in STEM careers.The American Physical Societyreported that less than 10% of physics degrees were awarded to students of color in 2012. According to a NACME study, only 3% of engineers identify as African American. These numbers are even harder to digest when I experience my students' enthusiasm for science, only to think of how that may fade if it is not nurtured. Educators with demonstrated experience and passion for STEM learning can continue to foster the same excitement in our students, and give them the opportunity to become the next generation of STEM leaders in Massachusetts.
During a MassBio Candidate Forum this fall, Governor Charlie Baker said we need to ask the people who are "really good at doing STEM education" to help others understand how to expand great STEM education to every child. Let's take it one step further and recruit and train more of those experts to lead our science classrooms. No student deserves to be shut out of a career in our thriving STEM economy because we offer them inadequate preparation during their pre-K-12 years. And with the inclusion of a more diverse group of thinkers engaged in science and technology careers, innovation in Massachusetts is bound to thrive.
Erin Dukeshire teaches sixth grade science at Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School in Roxbury. An alumna of Teach For America, Erin became a teacher after studying biology at Bowdoin College, and after years of watching her parents teach in public schools in Agawam, Ludlow, and for the Lower Pioneer Valley Educational Collaborative. She is a 2012 Presidential Awardee for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.