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National Research Council (US) Chemical Sciences Roundtable. Strengthening High School Chemistry Education Through Teacher Outreach Programs: A Workshop Summary to the Chemical Sciences Roundtable. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2009.

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Strengthening High School Chemistry Education Through Teacher Outreach Programs: A Workshop Summary to the Chemical Sciences Roundtable.

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3The High School Chemistry Teacher: Status and Outlook

Major Points in Chapter 3

Longitudinal data demonstrate that exposure to particular subjects in high school chemistry, frequent peer interactions, and studying high-level mathematics are positively associated with chemistry grades in college, while time spent on community and student projects, labs, and instructional technologies can be negatively associated with college chemistry grades.

Most high school chemistry teachers have taken college courses above the level they are assigned to teach, but they report needing help using technology in science instruction, teaching classes with special needs students, and using inquiry-oriented teaching methods.

Laboratories in high school chemistry tend to be disconnected from coursework, to focus on procedures rather than on clear learning outcomes, and to provide few opportunities for discussion or reflection.

New requirements that high school students take more advanced science courses have increased the need for well-prepared chemistry teachers.

A major challenge for high school chemistry teachers is connecting the subject to everyday experiences, and professional development that focuses on this linkage can be especially valuable.

High school teachers can have a tremendous impact on students’ interest and performance in the sciences. Many scientists talk about an especially inspiring teacher they had in high school. High school teachers often report that former students have told them about successes in college that they attribute to experiences in that teacher’s class. “There’s very little doubt in anyone’s mind that teachers can, conceivably, have a tremendous impact on students’ interest and performance in the sciences,” said Robert Tai, an associate professor in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.

Yet how can anyone know that this kind of anecdotal evidence is representative? Only broad-based representative sampling can provide solid data about the effects of high school science classes in general, Tai pointed out. Without such data, several important questions are left unanswered. How pervasive is teachers’ influence? Are some teaching practices more effective than others? Can teachers’ influence span the years from high school to college?

The data needed to answer these questions must be drawn from many students and classes, be representative of students, and in many cases, extend over periods of years. Ideally, such data would include information about what students were doing when they were very young and what they were doing in college. The questions asked of students need to be specific enough to determine why they made the choices they did, and the people who are answering the questions need to care enough about the project to provide thoughtful responses.

Tai and his colleagues have used three different data sets to explore these issues. The first is the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS), which has been collecting data from a sample of several thousand students since 1988. The second is Project FICSS—Factors Influencing College Science Success—a national survey of introductory college science students in biology, chemistry, and physics in which 67 colleges and universities have participated. The third is Project Crossover, which is a nationally representative survey of approximately 3,000 chemists and physicists and 1,000 graduate students in those disciplines.

One of the questions on the NELS questionnaire has been, What kind of work do you expect to be doing when you are 30 years old? In a study published in Science in 2006, Tai and his collaborators combined the answers to this question by eighth graders with data on factors such as demographic indicators, school attendance, and results on standardized achievement tests.1 They asked whether an eighth grader who expressed an interest in a science-related career was more likely to graduate college with a degree in science. As expected, they found that students who said they wanted to be in a career related to the life sciences, physical sciences, or engineering were two to three times more likely to earn a degree in that area than students who did not express this interest.

They also found that eighth graders who performed higher on standardized tests in mathematics were more likely to graduate with a degree in the sciences or engineering. However, their analysis produced an unexpected result. Eighth graders who are interested in science or engineering but with average mathematics scores are more likely to graduate with a college degree in those fields than the eighth graders who scored highest in mathematics. “That means that there is some indication that it’s not all about test scores, especially not in the eighth grade,” said Tai. Yet those eighth grade scores are used to track students into mathematics classes when they enter high school, meaning that some students with an interest in science and engineering could be tracked into high school classes that make it difficult or impossible for them to achieve their goals. “We should take a very close look at how we go about doing this kind of thing …. That’s an approach that we really need to reevaluate.”

One of the questions in the Project Crossover survey asked practicing chemists, physicists, and graduate students in those fields when they first became interested in science. About 70 percent of both groups reported developing an interest in science in grades K-8, about 24 percent reported developing their interest in grades 9–12, and about 6 percent reported developing their interest in college (Figure 3.1). However, when asked when they developed an interest in their “career discipline,” the results were somewhat different. The survey showed that 29 percent of scientists and 23 percent of graduate students reported developing their interest in grades K-8, 52 percent of scientists and 56 percent of graduate students reported developing their interest in high school, and 18 percent of scientists and 21 percent of graduate students reported developing their interest in college (Figure 3.2). Thus, “you can’t ignore any particular level,” Tai said. To realize the full potential of the workforce to understand and contribute to science, the subject needs to be emphasized at each grade level.

FIGURE 3.1. The majority of graduate students and scientists report becoming interested in science in elementary and middle school, but about 30 percent develop their interest in high school and college.

FIGURE 3.1

The majority of graduate students and scientists report becoming interested in science in elementary and middle school, but about 30 percent develop their interest in high school and college. SOURCE: Tai, R. H. 2008. Research on Student Interest and Performance: (more...)

FIGURE 3.2. Slightly more than half of graduate students and scientists report becoming interested in their career discipline during high school, but significant fractions do so both earlier and later than high school.

FIGURE 3.2

Slightly more than half of graduate students and scientists report becoming interested in their career discipline during high school, but significant fractions do so both earlier and later than high school. SOURCE: Tai, R. H. 2008. Research on Student (more...)

Tai and his collaborators also have looked specifically at the factors that contribute to success in chemistry in college, as measured by the grades received in their college chemistry classes. They investigated instructional practices, key content and concepts, lab experiences, the use of technology, and student projects. They then constructed comprehensive models of the connections between these factors and college performance in both physics and chemistry. “What we’re finding is that there is a connection, and it’s robust and fairly consistent from sample to sample.” Yet the connection also leads to some surprising and counterintuitive conclusions about high school science classes.

One conclusion is that the inclusion of particular concepts in high school chemistry has an impact on student performance in college.2 For example, students who received recurring exposure to the subject of stoichiometry did better than students who had no exposure to the subject. Yet students who had recurring exposure to nuclear reactions did worse in college chemistry than did students who had no high school exposure to the subject at all. The reason seems to be that nuclear reactions are among the last topics covered in the high school chemistry curriculum, which means that teachers have to be speeding through the material to get to it, according to Tai. “You’re flying along too fast, basically, covering way too much stuff. That’s what this is indicating.”

In a study published in 2007, Tai’s research group looked at the connection between instructional practices and grades in college chemistry classes.3 Surprisingly, they found that the more demonstrations students observe in high school chemistry, the worse they do in college. Tai speculated that too many demonstrations might be “dog-and-pony shows” that focus on the demonstrations themselves and not on what the demonstrations mean.

Having students interact with each other in high school chemistry classes, as opposed to having them work individually, positively affects their performance in college. Yet time spent preparing for standardized tests has a negative effect. Time spent on community and student projects also has a negative effect on grades, especially for the weaker students in high school chemistry. Community and student projects may in general be too open-ended, Tai observed. Such projects can have relatively little structure, which may not be a problem for high-performing students, but “the ones who are struggling in school … typically are struggling to understand what’s going on and need to have some kind of structure in their learning.” Especially for students without a preexisting understanding of and interest in science, projects may have to be combined with robust content instruction. Furthermore, different students may need different kinds of instruction. “The same science doesn’t fit all students,” said Tai. “Different approaches work better for some students versus others.”

Having large numbers of laboratories in high school chemistry is negatively associated with grades in college.4 That does not necessarily mean that all labs are bad, Tai cautioned. “It may well be that loading students up on these hands-on experiences without the kind of debriefing that’s necessary to help them understand what it is that they’re doing in the labs isn’t that helpful.” Similarly, time spent preparing for and understanding lab procedures had a negative effect on college grades. These findings have not been very popular with chemistry educators, Tai admitted, yet they can reveal some important aspects of the interaction between students and the content of a high school chemistry course.

In work that was still unpublished at the time of the meeting, Tai examined the effect of instructional technology in high school chemistry courses on college performance in chemistry classes. Although many billions of dollars have been spent on instructional technologies in high schools, students who use these technologies frequently in their chemistry classes do worse overall in college. “This is a bit distressing, given the amount of money that we’re spending,” Tai said. Yet it may be an indication that “mainly what we’re doing is asking teachers to fit their teaching to the technology and not so much fitting the technology to the teacher. It may well be that we’re proliferating technology faster than the teachers are able to incorporate it into what it is they are doing.

District- or school-level policies also can affect high school chemistry instruction with a corresponding influence on college chemistry performance. For example, lengthening of high school class periods from 45 or 50 minutes to an hour and a quarter or an hour and a half did not make much difference to college grades.5 Class size does have an influence, but only if the classes are very small—10 students or fewer—and the only state that has classes that small is Vermont, where high school class size averages about 11.6

Finally, Tai’s group has looked at whether taking a different science class in high school improves grades in college chemistry.7 No such effect was observed for either biology or physics classes. However, taking calculus in high school had a big effect not only on chemistry grades but on college physics and biology grades as well. “I don’t think it’s necessarily the content,” said Tai. “It may well be the type of reasoning and understanding that’s required, the organization of thought that’s required to progress in mathematics.”

At the end of his talk and again during the question-and-answer session, Tai discussed the nature of the link between teaching practices in high school chemistry classes and grades in college chemistry. His results are all associational, he cautioned, making it difficult to draw causal links from any given practice or action to an outcome. “But the fact that the same students were followed for this period of time gives us more of a basis to draw conclusion about whether [a given practice] is important.”

AN OVERVIEW OF HIGH SCHOOL CHEMISTRY TEACHERS

There are between 30,000 and 40,000 high school chemistry teachers in the United States, according to informed estimates discussed at the meeting. Pinning down an exact number is difficult because many teachers are engaged in teaching that is out of their fields. According to data gathered in 2000, slightly more than half of all high school chemistry teachers in the United States are female, 91 percent are white, roughly half have a master’s degree, and approximately one-third may be reaching retirement in the next 10 years.8 The data may be somewhat old, said Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, but they probably still capture fairly well the demographics of high school chemistry teachers. The most surprising statistic to him, said Wheeler, is that roughly one-third of those who teach chemistry have three or more preparations a day, including different levels of chemistry, other science courses, or courses outside science.

According to the same data source, 99 percent of high school chemistry teachers have completed a college course in general introductory chemistry, 93 percent have done so for organic chemistry, 68 percent have had analytical chemistry, and 51 percent have had physical chemistry (Table 3.1) “Most have had courses above the level they’ve been assigned to teach,” said Wheeler. “That’s not true in middle-level and elementary math and science. There are many times in elementary math and science where teachers are actually, shocking as it is, teaching material that is higher than the level they took in their preparation.”

TABLE 3.1. College Science and Education Courses Taken by High School Chemistry Teachers.

TABLE 3.1

College Science and Education Courses Taken by High School Chemistry Teachers.

More than half of chemistry teachers say that they need help in using technology in science instruction, teaching classes with special needs students, and using inquiry-oriented teaching methods. Between one-third and one-half of teachers report needing help in understanding student thinking in science, learning how to assess student learning in science, and deepening their own science content knowledge.

Chemistry teachers, like high school science teachers in general, also report low levels of participation in professional development that is specific to science teaching. Schools face a dilemma in that regard, said Wheeler. The needs of their teachers are so varied that they find it easier to hire a generalist to talk about motivation, management, or some other general subject rather than addressing the content needs of individual science teachers. Even science teachers need very different kinds of professional development. “The variation is so wide that I haven’t found schools being able to solve that problem.”

According to data gathered by the Council of Chief State School Officers, the proportions of students taking chemistry in high school range from 87 percent in Texas to 13 percent in West Virginia (Table 3.2). Even within states, there is great variation in how many students take chemistry and other science classes in high school. “We’ve got 16,000 school districts making 16,000 different kinds of decisions.”

TABLE 3.2. Percentage of Students Who Have Taken Chemistry Courses in High School.

TABLE 3.2

Percentage of Students Who Have Taken Chemistry Courses in High School.

A particularly problematic aspect of high school chemistry is its use of labs, Wheeler pointed out. “The general laboratory situation is pretty deplorable.” He pointed to a recent National Research Council study that examined the current state and effectiveness of high school labs, their interactions with technologies and school policies, and possible alternatives to labs.9 Though the report addressed all high school labs, its points are just as relevant when made about chemistry labs.

The report pointed out that there is no consensus on what the goals of labs are or should be. For more than 150 years, scientists and educators have assumed that labs are essential to teaching science. Yet lab experiences have often been isolated from the general flow of science teaching. For example, Wheeler pointed out that in two of the universities he has been associated with, the chemistry labs were independent of the chemistry course in the sense that the two could be taken at completely different times, and the same disconnect between labs and course work often happens in high school. Instead of being integrated into what the teacher is trying to accomplish, the lab is isolated and independent.

Current labs have other negative characteristics. They tend to be focused on procedures rather than clear learning outcomes. They provide few opportunities for reflection or discussion. They do not integrate the learning of content with the processes of science; they do not reflect instructional design based on recent cognitive research; and future teachers are not exposed to good labs as models of experiential learning.

Labs provide a prime opportunity to teach students who will not become scientists about the nature of science, yet this remains one of the greatest failings of high school science classes. Wheeler said that he spends considerable time defending the high school biology curriculum from demands that creationist ideas be included in the science curriculum. If Americans had a better grasp of the nature of science, they would be less likely to call for the inclusion of religious ideas in science classrooms.

Major changes will be required in several areas to improve high school labs. Schools, districts, and states will need to support meaningful reform in the design and use of labs. Undergraduate science education will have to change, and state standards will need to change so as not to discourage teachers from dedicating the time needed for effective labs. For example, the skills being tested at the state level through “No Child Left Behind” have nothing to do with lab experience that students should have. The high-stakes tests that have been adopted by many states end up “valuing what we measure instead of measuring what we value,” Wheeler said.

Current assessments are not designed to measure accurately the outcomes of lab experiences. Developing and improving these assessments is not easy and will be expensive. “It’s a very challenging problem to assess student achievement in the things we actually value,” said Wheeler. Even today, most assessments are unaligned with even the best standards, and most sets of state standards are far from optimal. Although the standards developed by the National Research Council and the American Association for the Advancement of Science are high quality, said Wheeler, the states have altered and in many cases expanded them. “We now have 50 different state standards that are filled with factoids.”

Beyond the problem of labs, said Wheeler, the greatest challenge is at the middle school level. Teachers need to understand the subjects they are assigned to teach. Yet especially in middle school, teachers are often misassigned. “When I was in my first year of teaching, we joked and said, ‘Don’t hum when you’re walking down the hallway. The principal will turn you into the music teacher.’” Despite regulations at the state and district levels about teacher qualifications, inside an individual school, said Wheeler, “all bets are off.”

Efforts to change education also must address the problem of scale. Teaching is a huge profession. There are 1.7 million teachers of science in the United States, including the 1.5 million elementary school teachers who are students’ first teachers of science. Programs that reach just a few teachers may be important but cannot overcome the problems of scale that must be addressed. For example, sending underprepared middle school teachers back to college and university classes cannot raise their content knowledge enough for them to teach science well, especially given estimates that half of all chemistry teachers leave the profession within five years. Instead, the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) has been working to create a large Web site that offers highly interactive four-hour engagements with science content designed for the adult novice learner. Another initiative has been to connect early-career teachers with experienced teachers through an electronic network. That effort has in turn led to the formation of the NSTA New Science Teacher Academy, which uses mentoring and other professional development resources to support science teachers during their initial years.

CHEMISTRY AT THE STATE LEVEL

Although no national organization representing chemistry teachers exists, many states have an active group for high school chemistry teachers. For example, the Associated Chemistry Teachers of Texas (ACT2), was created 27 years ago and is an affiliate organization of the Science Teachers Association of Texas. “It’s not anywhere near the numbers we would like,” said Roxie Allen, a former ACT2 president and a teacher at St. John’s School in Houston, but “it’s a very viable chemistry teacher group.”

The issues associated with high school chemistry in Texas are representative of those that occur throughout the nation. The Texas Education Agency sets the content to be taught in science classes through the Texas Essential Knowledge and Standards, which include a large number of content requirements along with laboratory skills. Texas is also moving to a requirement that high school students take four years of science, which has caused the number of students taking chemistry in Texas to rise from 32 to 87 percent, with an ultimate goal of 100 percent. In addition, end-of-course exams are being instituted for chemistry and other subjects in Texas, with the chemistry exams now being field-tested. These changes in requirements have greatly increased the need for chemistry teachers in Texas. Previously, many high school science teachers taught an integrated physics and chemistry course. These teachers now are being expected to teach physics and/or chemistry, creating a great need for additional teacher training. Many school districts also like to hire teachers trained in composite science, because they can teach many different science courses. Unfortunately, as a result of this broad training, these teachers often lack depth in individual subjects. Furthermore, many teachers are not adequately trained to supervise students in labs, and most teacher training programs do not focus on lab skills.

Many high school science teachers come through alternate certification routes from industry. They know the content well but have few teaching skills or little knowledge of how to teach. Mentoring can be a great help to them, but the quality of mentors differs greatly. Funding is also a very significant issue in Texas, with large disparities in the amounts different schools have to spend. For example, “most chemistry teachers do not have supply budgets,” Allen observed. Class sizes can be very large: When Allen taught in public school, she had 37 students in one of her classes. “You cannot do a lab when you have 37 students and you have desks and lab tables for 24.” More and more districts in Texas are adopting block scheduling, which is cheaper for schools. This results in less contact time with students and makes it harder for students to absorb the large amounts of material presented in a single class. Block scheduling is especially difficult for advanced placement (AP) courses, which are designed for daily classes.

The Science Teachers Association of Texas holds an annual Conference for the Advancement of Science Teachers. The two- to three-day program features many hands-on workshops, which “is critical,” Allen said. “If you don’t try something, then you’re probably not going to do it when you get back to your classroom.”

The ACT2 has a membership of about 800, with anywhere from 50 to 150 teachers coming to conferences held every other year. The group also has a very active e-mail network, part of which is devoted to employment assistance. In addition, it has local groups—the local group in the Houston area is the Metropolitan Houston Chemistry Teachers Association, which meets three to four times a year. This organizational structure enables extensive networking, Allen said. “I don’t know that a lot of states have the kinds of opportunities that we have to communicate with each other.”

ACT2 meets during the state conferences and during regional miniconferences of the Science Teachers Association of Texas. The president-elect of ACT2 hosts the ACT2 conference in a city near where he or she lives, generally at a local university or college. Costs are kept very low, so that more teachers can attend. The emphasis is on hands-on activities that teachers can take back to their classrooms. Teachers also have an opportunity to network with college and university professors from the area. Outside funding is important to some of these activities, so when funding changes or becomes less available, less can be done. Members of the group also interact with national groups, including the NSTA, and Texas hosted the ChemEd conference last year.

ACT2 has had trouble attracting members among younger teachers. The resulting loss of membership reduces funding, which dampens the number and scale of activities that can be conducted. “We have very few young teachers who are joining us,” said Allen. With a third of teachers expected to retire in the next 10 years, “organizations like ours are going to be impacted seriously.”

In response to a question about how to improve the funding of high school chemistry, Allen noted that teachers do not know whom to contact in industry to get financial support, even when a company may be willing to provide assistance. “It would be wonderful if industry and even academia would figure out a way to help high school teachers know how to get money to do things like workshops.” Most teachers coming to workshops held by ACT2 are probably paying their own way, even though funding may be available to subsidize their attendance.

ON THE FRONT LINES

High school chemistry teachers generally enter the profession in one of three ways, said Caryn Galatis, who has been teaching in the Fairfax County public school system in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC for more than 30 years. A very small number come directly into teaching after finishing their bachelor’s degrees. “In the last 20 years that I’ve been involved in hiring practices at my school, I think I’ve only interviewed three or four teachers that are directly out of undergraduate education.”

The second route is that people work in industry for several years but find that they are unhappy and decide to try teaching. The third route is to switch careers from another profession into teaching.

In the State of Virginia, high school chemistry teachers cannot get a high school teaching certificate without an undergraduate degree in chemistry or the equivalent number of courses, though this is not a requirement for certification in all states. Virginia also requires five different education courses for certification, one of which is in science methods.

However, most of the people Ms. Galatis has interviewed were not certified. Instead, new chemistry teachers are hired with a provisional contract and are given three years to fulfill the education requirements for certification.

Also, retention of science teachers is difficult, she said, “partly because retention in teaching in general is difficult. People tend to stay three to six years and are out.” High school chemistry teaching is especially difficult because teachers need to plan, teach, and manage their classes and also prepare for and run a laboratory program. “You’re almost preparing twice as much content and not given any more time to do it,” said Galatis. Most teachers set up labs before and after school, and “there’s a lot of time involved.”

A lack of mentors also has a negative effect on retention. Even in the Fairfax County system, which provides more support for teachers than most systems, “very little support is given to new teachers who come into the profession, and I don’t care whether they’re young teachers or old teachers.”

The disparities that exist between states also exist within states. Although Galatis teaches in one of the richest counties in the state, she also owns property in one of the state’s poorest counties. In Fairfax County, more than 90 percent of high school students graduate with a credit in chemistry. In the county where she owns property, she estimates that the percentage is probably less than 40 percent.

The two factors that have had the greatest impact on science teaching during her career have been the “Science for All” movement and state exit exams, which Virginia instituted in the 1990s. When she began teaching, probably 30 to 40 percent of students took chemistry—mostly college-bound students who were interested in science. Now most students who intend to enter four-year colleges are expected to have taken chemistry. The movement toward Science for All has been implemented very differently in the State of Virginia. In Fairfax County, most students take four science credits in three different science areas, so most college-bound students take biology, chemistry, and physics. In other places in the state, students need three science credits to graduate, which they can do without ever taking chemistry or physics.

Nevertheless, many more students take chemistry now than in the past, which means that many chemistry students have very weak mathematics backgrounds. “You’re teaching chemistry to students who don’t necessarily have an interest in science. They’re taking it because they need it to graduate, which changes greatly what teacher[s] need in their skill set in order to teach the complexity of chemistry.” The greater diversity of students is especially a problem for older teachers who are within 10 years of retirement and do not necessarily have the skill sets to teach less prepared students.

Galatis said that she is a firm believer “that all kids can learn chemistry,” but “they can’t all learn it the same way.” Younger teachers coming right out of their undergraduate education are much better prepared than are many older teachers to teach chemistry to a broad range of students, so “at least in the State of Virginia, I know the universities are doing a pretty good job with that population.”

Galatis spends many hours after school mentoring other teachers, if she can get them to work after hours. Yet teachers wish they had more time to improve their skills. While many training sessions and other opportunities are available, they can be expensive and far away. Without this training, teachers are less able to show their students the excitement of chemistry through labs and other hands-on experiences.

Her school has recently made an effort to give its chemistry labs a much more practical base, so they do relatively few textbook labs. Instead, they do more content-specific labs that connect students with particular problems. “Doing a lab that makes kids see the connection between content that’s hard for them, giving them that mental picture in their head, so it’s not just memorization and textbook learning, is what’s going to get kids to stay in science.”

Brian Kennedy, who teaches at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, said that he got interested in chemistry in college, when a particularly inspiring organic chemistry teacher made him decide to major in chemistry. While in graduate school in chemistry, he began to meet people who had been involved in the Teach for America program. After a postdoctoral fellowship at the Army Research Laboratory in Maryland, he entered Teach for America. “I was probably quite an anomaly to go into Teach for America after 12 years of college-type work,” he said.

After teaching in Houston, he began teaching in a rural area of North Carolina in one of the lowest-performing schools in the state. “It was an extremely challenging environment” marked by many long days and nights of teaching, coaching, and helping the students in his classes. “I was able to see firsthand the extreme difficulties that a lot of kids had beyond the classroom.” Many of his students could not read at a high school level, much less take chemistry, “yet here they were in a chemistry class. It was an extreme challenge to get them where you want them to be to do well in chemistry.”

Resources were virtually nonexistent—sometimes he had a computer and a printer but very few materials or supplies, and the computer had no access to the Internet. “It took me a long time and a lot of grant writing to get the materials I needed for how I wanted to teach.”

After interviewing for a new teaching position, he ended up at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, which is one of the top high schools in the country. For the past six years, he has taught all levels of chemistry there, including organic chemistry with instrumental methods of analysis.

Even though he now teaches in a very different environment than before, “there still seems to be an issue of getting the financial resources you need to do things for the caliber of student you think you have. That’s been a common thread anywhere I’ve taught.”

Teachers need greater access to outreach programs, Kennedy said. Many colleges and government agencies have programs designed to help, yet there is a disconnect between the teachers and the programs. “If teachers themselves could be more involved with creating the outreach opportunities, they’re the ones who are in the trenches and understand what the real issues are.”

Funding for education is becoming increasingly tight given the status of the economy, and especially the housing market. In Fairfax County, the funds available for the school system depend heavily on the state of the housing market. As real estate prices drop, so does the funding for education. Corporations and government need to increase their support of education to make up for the shortfall, he said.

Finally, Kiara Hargrove from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute said that she was inspired by her high school chemistry teacher, but she wanted to pursue a career in the biomedical sciences. As a researcher, however, she found that she got much more enjoyment out of presenting papers and talking with people at meetings than working in the lab, so she decided to go into teaching, where she could interact with students and watch them move into their own careers.

She began teaching at the middle school level, which “is a very different beast than teaching just chemistry at the high school level.” She was teaching all of the physical sciences, algebra, and later, biotechnology at a mathematics and science magnet school in Baltimore County. That experience allowed her to learn about and experiment with the methodology of teaching, she said, which was easier for her because she already knew most of the content. After six years she began teaching chemistry at the high school she had attended. Baltimore Polytechnic Institute is a mathematics, science, and engineering magnet school that is among the top schools in the State of Maryland. The students can take organic chemistry and biochemistry as well as AP chemistry.

Hargrove teaches health as well as chemistry. It is challenging, she says, to prepare for another course in a different discipline, but her experience in the biomedical sciences has made it easier for her to be enthusiastic about that assignment. The school has three positions for chemistry teachers: One teaches just chemistry; one teaches chemistry, health, and one other course; and the third teaches chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, and possibly environmental science. “The retention of that teacher is very hard,” she said. “We’ve had a new teacher in that position for the past four years.”

Chemistry is not one of the subjects that undergoes a major assessment in the State of Maryland. As a consequence, chemistry teaching is not a focus of the school’s professional development activities. Yet the chemistry teachers feel that they need professional development opportunities, whether from the school, the district, or elsewhere.

The size of her classes varies from 30 to 39 students. Conducting labs is very challenging, she says, but “I try to figure out ways that I can get 39 students in a lab,” even without an assistant. Sometimes she brings in her own materials, and sometimes she tries to do labs with everyday materials such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipe. She says that she tries to make the labs correlate with the curriculum guide, even though the labs take longer than they do for other teachers when she uses them to engage in “meaningful conversations.”

During the question-and-answer period, the three teachers emphasized the importance of using professional development opportunities to connect chemistry with the context of daily life. “That’s where the kids really see the excitement and learning with chemistry and the sciences is when you put those two together,” said Hargrove. These connections can help fulfill the mission statement of the chemistry teacher, which the panelists described as comprising the chemistry education of both future citizens and future scientists. According to Galatis, forging links across disciplines is also essential, both in teaching and among teachers. It can be hard to coordinate across curricula within a school, but this kind of coordination can be greatly beneficial for students and teachers alike.

When asked about their best professional development activity, Kennedy said that learning the basics of teaching were most important for him, since he already knew the content. For example, What will you do on the first day of class? If all 50 students have a piece of paper in their hands, what is the best way to collect those papers? “For new aspiring teachers, if you want to keep them in the classroom, professional development that would help them get through that first year would be a crucial step.”

For Hargrove, the most valuable professional development has been how to differentiate instruction. Her students have extremely varied sets of skills. “You have to figure out how to address those students and address their needs.” Also, many teachers have good content knowledge in chemistry but lack the communication and social skills to work effectively with students. “Professional development that addresses how to reach those students who may seem unreachable” is important.

Galatis said that the best professional development she has done has been run by universities or companies, especially when they provide an opportunity to learn a new technique or use new equipment. “Imagine trying to be in front of 20 to 30 kids doing a lab when you have never touched the equipment yourself. It’s an impossible task to ask of teachers, and we ask teachers to do that in large numbers of ways.” Professional development workshops also have their place because she can come away from them with ideas that can be readily applied in the classroom.

Galatis also said that teachers need help connecting the curriculum they are given with the practical day-to-day tools that are needed for students to understand concepts. “One of the biggest problems with chemistry teachers who actually have the content is that they never struggled with learning chemistry. They don’t understand what these kids don’t know.” They need tools to help kids understand the concepts that are being presented.

Footnotes

1

R. H. Tai, C. Q. Liu, A. V. Maltese, and X. Fan. 2006. Planning early for careers in science. Science 312(5777):1143–1144.

2

Tai, R. H., Ward, R. B., and Sadler, P. M. (2006). High school chemistry content background of introductory college chemistry students and its association with college chemistry grades. Journal of Chemical Education 83(11):1703–1711.

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Copyright © 2009, National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK26411

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