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Growing STEM Roots: Preparing Preservice Teachers



This mixed-methods pilot study investigates elementary and secondary pre-service teachers' (n=12) mathematics and science content knowledge and conceptions of nature of science following the first year implementation of a science and mathematics site-based professional development program. This study utilized pre/post data from science and mathematics content exams, and Views of Nature of Science-C instrument. Data revealed gains in preservice teachers' mathematics and science content knowledge and perceptions regarding the nature of science.
Academic Exchange Quarterly Fall 2015 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 19, Issue 3
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Growing STEM Roots: Preparing Preservice Teachers
Tonya D. Jeffery, Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, TX
Cherie A. McCollough, Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, TX
Kim Moore, Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, TX
Tonya D. Jeffery, Ed.D., is Assistant Professor of Science Education in the Department of Teacher Education. Cherie
A. McCollough, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Science Education in the Department of Life Sciences. Kim Moore,
M.Ed., is Project Manager of ETEAMS in the Department of Mathematics.
This mixed-methods pilot study investigates elementary and secondary pre-service teachers’ (n=12) mathematics
and science content knowledge and conceptions of nature of science following the first year implementation of a
science and mathematics site-based professional development program. This study utilized pre/post data from
science and mathematics content exams, and Views of Nature of Science-C instrument. Data revealed gains in
preservice teachers’ mathematics and science content knowledge and perceptions regarding the nature of science.
The shortage of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) middle school teachers,
especially those in low income and high minority schools, is exacerbated by the fact that many of the
teachers are not adequately prepared or supported to foster success and interest in science and
mathematics (Boyd, Lankford, Loeb, Ronfeldt, & Wyckoff, 2011). This study explored designing teacher
preparation with authentic research experiences combined with site- and content-specific professional
development. Field based experiences utilized inquiry and other tools to increase content understanding
and deepen views of the nature of science.
The purpose of this paper is to describe a mixed-methods pilot study investigating elementary and
secondary pre-service teachers’ mathematics and science content knowledge and conceptions of nature
of science following the first year implementation of a science and mathematics site-based professional
development program. The key elements of this transformative strategy for bolstering the elementary to
middle levels science and mathematics teaching certification pathway for preservice teachers will be
discussed. Findings in this study will offer insight regarding fostering and developing preservice teachers’
math and science
content knowledge and understandings of nature of science in teacher preparation programs.
Literature Review
Generalist elementary education degrees are among the most completed in the U.S. (NCES, 2012).
However, many of these teachers have limited preparation for effectively teaching mathematics and
science as they have usually completed only one to three content courses in generalist education
programs (CBMS, 2012). Teachers who express uneasiness with mathematics or science are more likely
to avoid planning or teaching these subjects (Newton, Leonard, Evans, & Eastburn, 2012). In addition,
because educators struggle to adapt new curricula and new instructional techniques in their unique
classroom contexts, just-in-ti m e , j o b -embedded assistance was identified as crucial (Guskey & Yoon,
2009). Teacher preparation institutions must provide access to high quality mathematics education and
create supportive learning environments for preservice teachers (Capraro, Capraro, Parker, Kulm, &
Raulerson, 2005). Furthermore, engaging preservice teachers in authentic, situated practices of science
and science teaching provides a productive context to learn about the nature of science (Schwartz,
Lederman, & Crawford, 2004).
Traditional teacher education programs often lack authentic connections between university-based
teacher education courses and K-12 field experiences (Zeichner, 2007). Additionally, student teachers
usually do not have opportunities to observe, try out and receive focused feedback about their teaching of
methods learned in college courses. Darling-Hammond (2009) identified this lack of connection as the
Achilles’ heel of teacher education. Preservice teachers are typically left to work alone with little guidance
relating activities to coursework. Furthermore, it is often assumed that good teaching practices are
personally identified as they occur, rather than taught in an authentic, situated context (Darling-
Hammond, 2009; Valencia, Martin, Place, & Grossman, 2009). A possible solution to these challenges is
to prepare elementary and secondary teachers for grades 4-8 STEM instruction and the certification
process by augmenting their science and mathematics content knowledge.
Program Description Project Overview
South Texas University (pseudonym) is testing an unconventional and transformative strategy for
bolstering the elementary to middle levels science and mathematics teaching certification pathway for
preservice teachers. As a nationally funded, research-based effort, a team of investigators are studying
the impact of a new program initiative by using a mixed-methods matched-group research design
addressing students, pre- and inservice teachers in relation to views on nature of science, as well as self-
efficacy, interest, and achievement in science and mathematics as indicators of the quantity, quality, and
diversity of grades 4-8 mathematics and science teachers. The purpose of this paper is to highlight initial
findings using case-based studies to investigate preservice teachers’ changes in mathematics and
science content knowledge and views of NOS in a site-based professional development program.
During the 2013-2014 academic year, the 30-year teacher preparation partnership consisting of the
largest school district and university in a mid-sized U.S. southern city, began implementing the new
program at three participating schools, including one middle school and two elementary feeder schools
serving a combined 1,900 students annually. Given the deficits identified in the effectiveness of
traditional, externally designed professional development and the lack of authenticity in college preservice
field-based experiences, program investigators created a new model for science and mathematics
content instruction by incorporating site- and content-specific professional development with field-based
experiences, using inquiry and other tools to increase authenticity. The key elements of the site-based
professional development program includes a stronger partnership between the university and school
district, a partnership with preservice and inservice teachers, implementation of research-based
instructional practices in lesson planning sessions and workshops, and incorporating hands-on, active-
learning experiences and strategies specific for each classroom situation.
This study addressed the following research questions: 1) To what extent did pre-service teachers
mathematics content knowledge change over the program period? 2) To what extent did pre-service
teachers’ science content knowledge change over the program period? 3) To what extent did pre-service
teachers’ views of `the nature of science change over the program period?
Methods Context of the Study
The College of Education teacher preparation program’s enrollment predominantly consists of preservice teachers
seeking their early childhood/elementary teacher, grades EC-6 certification. Hence, the target population for this
study was elementary preservice teachers in urban settings. Additionally, the program was offered to middle grades
mathematics majors with the goal of them adding on a middle grades science certification. The EC-6 preservice
teachers were enrolled in an undergraduate teacher preparation program and had taken three math foundation
courses and two science foundation courses as part of their required courses. The middle grades mathematics
majors had the same foundational courses in math and science as the elementary preservice teachers. The 4-8
mathematics majors had an additional 19 credits of mathematics coursework. The preservice teachers participated in
this research study during their required year-long field experience, the final year of their program.
The first semester of preservice teachers’ field experiences is the field based course, which focuses on the pedagogy
and professional competencies of teachers. The course is comprised of students from a variety of disciplines.
Therefore, the pedagogy component is not specific to the students’ major field of study. The field based course is
hosted on-site at a K-12 school campus (partner school) and taught by a university site professor. The preservice
teachers spend two days per week for 14 weeks working with their university site professor on pedagogical skills and
time in assigned K-12 classrooms implementing teaching strategies and techniques with students. The second
semester of field experiences is the student teaching semester, where preservice teachers spend five days a w e ek
for 14 weeks in a research partner school. In addition to field basing and student teaching, participants met after
school to plan three inquiry-based lessons for STEM Thursday. The research participants were assigned to research
partner schools and took their field-based courses over consecutive Fall-Spring semesters. In addition, participants
received compensation for their participation. All preservice teachers’ names have been replaced with pseudonyms.
The professional development efforts centered directly on providing authentic experiences in mathematics and
science to enhance preservice teachers’ mathematics and science content knowledge and their understandings of
NOS and scientific reasoning (Abd-El-Khalick & Lederman, 1998). The program’s professional development model
consists of: 1) common planning 2) STEM Thursdays 3) certification workshops and 4) authentic research
Common Planning. There are two common planning sessions held at each partner school per semester, for a
total of six planning sessions led by university faculty during each semester. The common planning sessions offer a
unique opportunity for mathematics and science inservice teachers to work alongside each other to plan collaborative
lessons as they mentored preservice teachers. During the first part of the common planning sessions, preservice
teachers and inservice mathematics and science teachers participate in professional development activities ranging
from mathematics concepts and problem solving to inquiry-based teaching and nature of science understandings.
During the second part of common planning time, the preservice teachers, inservice teachers, and university faculty
meet around large tables and work collaboratively to plan integrated mathematics and science lessons for STEM
Thursdays. During these collaborative planning sessions, discussions arise about best practices in teaching various
concepts, inquiry-based lessons, nature of science, manipulatives utilized by instructors, and experiences from the
authentic science research activities. These common planning sessions provide preservice teachers with additional
opportunities to enhance their content knowledge by directly interacting with their cooperating teacher and university
faculty to increase their confidence in teaching the lesson concepts, as well as opportunities to learn vicariously
through their peers.
STEM Thursdays. Another key component of the program model, STEM Thursdays, impacts all of the
stakeholders (pre- and inservice teachers, science and mathematics faculty, 4-8 students). Three times per
semester, participants receive hands-on and minds-on science and mathematics lessons with many conceived during
common planning times. These lessons are implemented in grades 4-8 classrooms at all partner schools.
Certification Workshops. Preservice teachers participate in workshops on the university campus to increase
their content knowledge in mathematics and science during the Fall and Spring semesters. There are six
mathematics and six science certification workshops provided for preservice teachers each semester, for a total of 12
workshops led by university faculty and master teachers. During the workshop sessions, the focus is to help
preservice teachers understand and reinforce concepts in mathematics and science.
Authentic Research Experiences. Preservice and inservice teachers participate in original science research
with university researchers, experiencing science as they work in the field and lab. During the Fall semester,
preservice teachers participated in 10 hours of authentic research experiences in the university’s College of Science
and Engineering working with university researchers and scientists to learn about science, the nature of science, and
how scientists conduct their investigations in the field and lab.
Setting and Participants
Three partner schools are affiliated with the program: two elementary school campuses and one middle school
campus. Of the three research partner schools, the site-based professional development took place at only one of the
three school campuses, a middle school campus, which serves grades 6-8 students (treatment group). The
experiences of the preservice teachers at the middle school campus, who received the on-site professional
development, was compared to the preservice teachers experiences at one of the elementary school campuses that
serves grades K-5 students (control group).
The participants include 12 preservice elementary (n= 6) and secondary teachers (n=6), all females, participating in a
science and mathematics site-based professional development program. For the purposes of this case study
approach, 4 of the 12 preservice teachers were randomly selected as a representative sample of the original
preservice teacher study population. Therefore, the study participants (n=4) were part of a larger preservice teacher
cohort. Two participants are prospective elementary teachers seeking an EC-6 generalist teaching certification and
two are prospective secondary teachers, seeking a 4-8 math teaching certification.
Control group. The control group is representative of preservice teachers at the elementary school. The
preservice teachers did not receive explicit teachings on nature of science or the 5-E (Bybee, Taylor, Gardner,
Scotter et al., 2006) inquiry-based instructional model. In preparation for STEM Thursday activities: (a) math and
science lessons were given to preservice teachers during a single meeting with a science and/or mathematics faculty
member, (b) preservice teachers taught lessons once in 4th and 5th grade classrooms, (c) program staff developed
and led the lesson lessons, and (d) preservice teachers had a supporting role. At the elementary school campuses,
STEM Thursday math and science lessons were only taught once, as opposed to teaching the lessons to multiple
classes throughout the day.
Treatment Group. The treatment group is representative of preservice teachers at the middle school. The site-
based professional development consisted of: monthly planning meetings, enhanced STEM Thursdays, onsite
support, and materials and resources. Preservice teachers received explicit teachings on nature of science, science
content, and 5-E inquiry-based instructional models. In preparation for STEM Thursday activities: (a) preservice
teachers and program staff collaboratively planned and created 5-E math and science lessons, (b) preservice
teachers led lessons and program staff acted in supporting role, (c) preservice teachers taught lessons in
consecutive periods in 6th and 7th grade classrooms, (d) preservice teachers and program staff met 3-4 weeks
every month and exchanged emails, (e) preservice teachers practiced teaching their lessons prior to STEM
Thursday, and reflected afterwards. On-site support from a science education professor was available twice per
Data Collection and Instruments
In this mixed-methods study, the researchers utilized three instruments as sources of data during the
year-long intervention: a) mathematics content exam, b) science content test and, c) a modified version of
the Views of Nature of Science (version C) questionnaire (Lederman, Abd-El Khalick, Bell, & Schwartz,
Content Tests
Researchers measured preservice teacher’s mathematics content knowledge with a 25-item pre/post
multiple choice mathematics content exam, addressing domains on the state’s middle school
mathematics certification exam. Preservice teachers’ changes in science content knowledge was
measured with a 25-item multiple choice pre/post exam (Wynne, 2008), devised and tested to establish
validity and reliability (Miles & Huberman, 1994). The test represented the science teacher domains
(scientific inquiry and processes, physical science, life science, earth and space science) addressed on
the state science teachers certification exam.
To assess preservice teachers’ conceptions of nature of science, researchers administered the VNOS-C,
a 10-item, open-ended questionnaire (Abd-El-Khalick and Lederman1998) later revised (Lederman, Abd-
El Khalick, Bell, & Schwartz, 2002). Per authors suggestions (Lederman, Abd-El Khalick, Bell, &
Schwartz, 2002), each VNOS-C item was printed on a single page to provide respondents with adequate
space for their responses. Researchers encouraged participants to elaborate and provide supportive
illustrations where applicable. For this study, researchers evaluated 5 of the 10 questions from the VNOS-
C questionnaire targeting the following nature of science aspects: a) empirical nature of scientific
knowledge; b) distinctions and relationships between scientific theories and laws; c) the creative and
imaginative nature of scientific knowledge; and d) the cultural and social influences of scientific
knowledge. Analysis utilized a rubric based on previous research (Bargmann & McCollough, 2011).
Researchers independently reviewed and scored the VNOS-C participant responses and achieved a 90%
agreement rate. A qualitative analysis of questionnaire responses measured preservice teachers’
conceptions of nature of science (Creswell, 2007). Additional qualitative data included focus group
responses conducted by external consultants resulting in transcribed participant responses. Data
analyses were discussed and differences were resolved reaching consensus among the researchers
(Miles & Huberman, 1994).
Results and Discussion
Results are organized by the three research questions and case-based studies of the four participants which included
t h e f o ll o w i ng d at a :
Mathematics content knowledge. Overall, 9 of 12 (75%) preservice teachers improved in the pre-post
measure of mathematics content knowledge (see Figure 1). It is important to note that preservice teachers in the
control group and treatment group differed in mathematical ability. Preservice teachers in the treatment group were
seeking secondary mathematics teaching certificate, and had taken more mathematics courses providing a higher
level of content knowledge in mathematics than the control group. The control group made larger gains (15%) than
the treatment group (13%). However, the control group made gains that were quite variable. Gains ranged from -
23% to 67%, indicating the intervention may not have significantly helped this group. Conversely, the treatment group
made gains from 4% to 27% and participants consistently improved.
Science content knowledge. Overall, 8 of 12 (67%) preservice teachers in Year 1 improved on the pre-post
measure of science content knowledge as shown in Figure 2. According to the pre-test results the six middle school
preservice teachers in the program entered the professional development program with greater science knowledge
(M = 0.52, SD = .20) than the elementary group (M = 0.42, SD = .16). The treatment group showed normalized gains
of 29%. The control group had normalized gains of 7%, a significant increase in post-test scores. A Mann-Whitney
test compared differences between the control and treatment groups and revealed a significant difference between
the distribution of the post-test scores (p = .015). For normalized gains, Cohen’s d = .71, indicating a large effect size.
Data supports the conclusion that the professional development model used at the middle school had a significantly
strong impact on the acquisition of science content knowledge (Table 2).
Nature of Science. Analysis of the qualitative component of the written response shows that the two groups had
similar initial responses to the VNOS-C, in which a majority of the preservice teachers held naïve conceptions of the
nature of science. Middle level preservice teachers had fewer misconceptions about nature of science when
compared to more informed views of the elementary preservice teachers who had modest gains, but did not respond
with fully informed answers to any of the questions (Figure 3)
Case-based Studies of Participants
Paula. Paula is a non-traditional student pursuing teaching as a second career and does not speak English as her
native language. Her math score increased 4% and science content test post-score increased 150%. Paula’s VNOS-
C post-test response depicts an increased understanding that science is based on experimentation and the collection
of data. In her pre-test, Paula revealed common misconceptions about theories and laws including the belief that a
theory can be proved true; once it does, it turns into a law. In her post-test, Paula was able to provide an example of
a law.
Christine. Christine demonstrates strong leadership abilities and is extremely enthusiastic about teaching both
math and science. Her math score increased 20% and science score increased 27%. Christine’s multiple choice
question score increased 27%. Her VNOS-C scores also increased in two of the five questions. Christine had similar
misconceptions as Paula when she began the program. In her post-test, Christine revealed a more developed
understanding of the nature of science and was able to provide Newton’s Laws as a concrete example of a scientific
Megan. Megan is an EC-6 major who was pursuing an add-on certificate in both math and science. She student
taught in a self-contained fourth grade classroom. Her math score increased 22% and scores on the science content
exam remained the same for both administrations. Her VNOS-C response showed growth in only one nature of
science aspect, understanding of the role of creativity.
Victoria. Victoria was assigned to a fifth grade Language Arts classroom for student teaching. She did participate
in the planning and delivery of five science and mathematics lessons during her experience. Her math score
increased 24%. Her prior science content knowledge measured 20% on the pre-test and grew to 40% during the
year. Her VNOS-C scores did not show any growth in understandings of nature of science.
Data from this study concludes that preservice teachers’ knowledge and views of mathematics and
science deepened over the course of the year-long professional development as they made connections
between their experiences as learners and as teachers. There were modest gains in mathematics and
science content knowledge and the program afforded a stronger partnership with preservice teachers,
allowing them to explore inquiry-based mathematics and science alongside scientists, mathematics
educators and science educators, and becoming familiar with their conceptions of the nature of science.
Explicit nature of science instruction utilized in the middle school professional development model had a
significant impact on science content knowledge and modest gains in nature of science understandings.
Promoting teachers’ understanding of nature of science is necessary for effective science teaching and
must include explicit scientific reasoning and scientific training as part of elementary and secondary
science methods courses. Preservice teachers’ mathematics and science content knowledge can be
developed by working collaboratively with peers, inservice teachers, and university faculty to write lesson
plans, teaching, reflecting on teaching practices, and learning to teach. A situated, authentic and relevant
uncovering of mathematics and science content benefits all stakeholders – preservice teachers, inservice
teachers, students, and mathematics and science faculty - as all supportively infuse a deeper level of
understanding in these STEM content areas.
This work was supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1321319. Any opinions, findings, and
conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect
the views of the National Science Foundation or the authors’ institutions.
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... Therefore, it is inevitable to investigate how teachers can be better supported when conceptualizing integrated STEM education and incorporating engineering-based STEM experiences into primary school classrooms. The lack of teachers who are competent to apply the STEM approach in their classrooms is further compounded by the fact that many teachers are not trained to promote interest and success in science and mathematics (Jeffrey, McCollough, & Moore, 2015). This situation is much more pronounced for primary school teachers who have received general education rather than specialization in a specific field (Adams et al., 2014). ...
... Future teachers who have not developed a STEM identity may enter the field of education with anxiety, insecurity and negative attitudes towards STEM subjects (Adams et al., 2014). This may affect the teacher's choice to teach these subjects, his attitudes about STEM subjects, or determine how he will teach in the future (Adams et al., 2014;Jeffrey et al., 2015). Therefore, primary school teachers' acquisition of the necessary competencies with rich and applied experiences in STEM education in the pre-service period will ensure that this educational approach can be applied in classrooms. ...
... One of the biggest obstacles to the success of the STEM education approach is the lack of professional development opportunities for a sufficient number of educators to increase their interest and competence in STEM fields (Jeffery et al., 2015). This also prevents future teachers from developing a STEM identity and thus, taking steps in this direction (Adams et al., 2014). ...
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Delineates the factors that mediate the translation of preservice teachers' conceptions of the nature of science into instructional planning and classroom practice. Few references to the nature of science are found in the data. Contains 44 references. (DDR)
Many large urban school districts are rethinking their personnel management strategies, often giving increased control to schools in the hiring of teachers, reducing, for example, the importance of seniority. If school hiring authorities are able to make good decisions about whom to hire, these reforms have the potential to benefit schools and students. Prior research on teacher transfers uses career history data, identifying the school in which a teacher teaches in each year. When such data are used to see which teachers transfer, it is unclear the extent to which the patterns are driven by teacher preferences or school preferences, because the matching of teachers to schools is a two-sided choice. This study uses applications-to-transfer data to examine separately which teachers apply for transfer and which get hired and, in so doing, differentiates teacher from school preferences. Holding all else equal, we find that teachers with better pre-service qualifications (certification exam scores, college competitiveness) are more likely to apply for transfer, while teachers whose students demonstrate higher achievement growth are less likely. On the other hand, schools prefer to hire “higher quality” teachers across measures that signal quality. The results suggest that not only do more effective teachers prefer to stay in their schools but that schools are able to identify and hire the best candidates when given the opportunity © 2010 by the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management.