In today’s classrooms, the emphasis on STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — is threatening the future of STEM education.
It sounds like twisted logic, but not to Karen Kaye, dean of the Baldwin Wallace University School of Education. She says Ohio — and the entire country, for that matter — is facing a devastating shortage of middle- and high-school science teachers. That’s partly because K-12 pupils, sold on STEM by their instructors and counselors, have grown up and chosen careers in industry instead of education.
Kaye says that during the last 10 years or so, enrollment in four-year, science-education programs at colleges has dropped significantly. In Ohio, graduates of education programs are down at least 20 percent, she adds.
“Science is really hurting,” Kaye says. “Teacher-prep programs in science are almost nonexistent in smaller colleges like ours, due to low enrollment.
“Compared to industry, science teachers are not going to make as much — the starting salary isn’t as high, and engineers and tech people receive better raises,” Kaye says. “Wages have been stagnant for teachers since the Great Recession, when the state cut funds to schools, and those salaries haven’t caught up.”
Baldwin Wallace has found a way to address the problem. In May, the university will roll out a 14-month accelerated master’s degree program in science teaching. The program is meant to draw Baldwin Wallace undergraduates, students from other colleges and industry professionals looking to change careers.
The purpose, Kaye says, is to produce more middle- and high-school science teachers quickly to meet demand. Kaye says the master’s program will have about eight students the first year but will eventually make room for 15 to 20 students.
“We’re hoping we can make a dent in this shortage of science teachers,” Kaye adds. “This is a pilot program, but we think it can be a model for other Ohio colleges.”
Accelerated master’s degree programs in education aren’t new. Other colleges have offered them to graduates (with bachelor’s degrees in science and other fields) aiming to become teachers.
Until now, Baldwin Wallace has avoided accelerated education programs. Kaye says it’s hard to prepare students for teaching careers in fewer than four years due to demanding state requirements. Also, teachers with master’s degrees sometimes expect higher salaries, which they don’t always find, so they end up without jobs.
“We want our teachers to be employed,” Kaye says.
Baldwin Wallace rethought its stance on accelerated programs because of the science-teacher shortage. However, the school wanted its program to stand out, so it included some unique features.
In its research, Baldwin Wallace found that high school pupils see science coursework as too abstract, and they have no clue how to apply what they learn.
Baldwin Wallace retains interest by requiring accelerated master’s degree students to obtain industry experience. They will intern at various companies (Sherwin-Williams, for example) and bring that practical knowledge into middle- and high-school classrooms.
Those entering the accelerated program from industry positions also will intern, learning more about education at places like the Cleveland Metroparks, Great Lakes Science Center.
In typical accelerated master’s programs, students first observe a teacher in a real classroom. Then they teach a little before taking complete control of the class. It’s a sink-or-swim proposition. But, in the Baldwin Wallace program, students will co-teach with a mentor during a longer time and gradually take over responsibilities. The approach will give students a life preserver, so to speak.
“The program will prepare teachers to work in teams because that’s what schools are doing — there is more collaboration today,” Kaye says. “And teachers want interns in the classroom because they need the help.”
Baldwin Wallace already partners with 80 local school districts on educational programs, and some of those districts will participate in the new accelerated master’s program. The districts have agreed to offer job interviews to any student who finishes the program and receives a teaching license.
Meanwhile, students already have applied for the inaugural master’s degree class. Some attend Baldwin Wallace, but students at other colleges also have registered. One applicant is a professional chemist who wants to switch careers and teach chemistry.
Kenda Blackburn, a 23-year-old Wadsworth resident, applied for the new program in December. She graduated from Baldwin Wallace in December 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in biology.
Blackburn had planned for a career in scientific research, a passion of hers while at Baldwin Wallace. The school encouraged students to conduct their own research or collaborate with faculty. After graduating, Blackburn landed a temporary research position at a global company, where she tested pharmaceuticals and chemicals.
The problem was the company provided its scientists as little information as possible. Blackburn never understood the broader scope of her work. She didn’t even know which pharmaceuticals or chemicals she was testing.
“It was hard to feel a sense of accomplishment,” Blackburn says. “When the assignment ended, I felt lost.”
Blackburn sought counsel from former Baldwin Wallace professors, who told her about the new accelerated master’s degree program in education. She spoke with Kaye, and it sounded promising. Teaching would allow her to learn for the rest of her career and share her knowledge with others.
Blackburn says the program also sounded accommodating for students with families. That’s especially important for her because she gave birth to a baby boy in November.
“As an undergraduate, I never considered teaching, but now, I can’t imagine pursuing anything else,” Blackburn says.