Taking A Fresh Look At STEM Professional Development

ALI Staff | Published  January 20, 2023

Professional development for STEM teachers is a tall order these days. 

As the pace of scientific advancement has accelerated, keeping up with content so you can teach relevant, up-to-date material has become an ongoing challenge. Even the periodic table of elements has been updated in recent years! 

And you also need to keep up with technological instructional trends, so you can competently use tech—both in the classroom and for your own STEM professional development.

Finally, STEM’s unique student-centric pedagogy requires specialized PD to address the process of STEM learning and the integration of STEM with other disciplines. 

In this post, we cover some of the multiple ways you can tackle the challenge of STEM teacher training and STEM professional development today.


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Why is today’s STEM professional development different from traditional PD?

In many ways, it isn’t: traditional, effective PD formats like conferences, courses, seminars, retreats, and workshops are still great ways to learn new approaches to teaching a new subject matter.

But the same technology that is changing the STEM world is opening up new avenues for learning that are agile and interactive—just like STEM teaching itself. 

Journal clubs and discussion groups that might have met in person and included only a handful of colleagues within a district can now take place over Zoom and include teachers from around the country or even the world.

And teachers can participate in webinars and online college-level courses from anywhere with an internet connection. 

One bonus of this connectivity is that teachers in underfunded districts and rural areas now have access to the same high-quality PD their colleagues in more urban areas and well-funded districts have.

By the same token, they are contributing their diverse voices to virtual PD “classrooms.” Similarly, online forums, chats, and discussion groups can broaden the conversation and provide opportunities for mentorship to a broader demographic of teachers.

And search engines are the largest card catalogs in the world—for those who are skilled in using them and can judge the credibility of what they find.

But it’s not only about the format. At the heart of today’s STEM PD is the change in the pedagogy.

The change in STEM pedagogy

If you’re a STEM teacher in any grade, you know that the pedagogy surrounding STEM has experienced a significant shift in recent decades.

In a relatively short number of years, it moved away from a traditional didactic teaching approach in which each individual discipline was taught separately, theory outweighed practice, and students were not expected to make connections between concepts.

Today’s integrated STEM approach features student-directed inquiry and problem-solving, hands-on, problem-based learning, an emphasis on real-world applications, integration across STEM and other academic disciplines, and the inclusion of social-emotional learning to prepare students for the working world.

As NSTA describes it, “It is not another ‘ingredient’ in the lesson ‘soup,’ but the recipe for helping learners apply their knowledge and skills, collaborate with their peers, and understand the relevance of what they are learning.”

The greater breadth of this STEM teaching approach aims to teach students STEM literacy from a very young age. That is, they learn how to think and act like scientists, so they have the skills to succeed in the current and future workforce that must tackle tech, knowledge, and problems that currently may not even exist.

This level of comfort with solving sometimes ill-defined problems within a team will serve all students, whether or not they work in a STEM field.


The impact on STEM professional development 

And as we all know, this greater breadth has turned STEM teaching on its head.

How can material be taught in ways that give students room to wonder, explore, hypothesize, argue appropriately, struggle productively, and make and learn from mistakes?

Today’s STEM educators have to understand the value and power of the engineering design process to enable students to fail and persevere. They need to teach the foundations of scientific thinking and behavior, using PBL techniques, language and communication skills, and SEL, as well as the material itself.

They need to create a classroom environment that allows students to solve real-world problems while deepening their content knowledge.

And even if they’re teaching a single STEM subject at a high school level, they need to draw connections among disciplines and between theory and real-world applications.

In essence, STEM teacher training needs to mirror the STEM teaching methods that are being used with students.

In the past, a teacher seeking further STEM professional development might focus on learning about new material in their subject and teaching techniques specific to their particular discipline or grade level. But today, teaching STEM is as much about the process of teaching as the content.

As the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh puts it, “STEM education is much more than just science, technology, engineering, and math. Instead of focusing on specific content, STEM education refers to skills and competencies that teachers of any discipline can incorporate into their lessons.”

As we said earlier, a tall order.


Choosing the right STEM Training resources

The good news is that a vast universe of professional development resources is available, both in traditional and tech-enabled formats, from a wide variety of sources.

Your district may provide some of these avenues for further STEM teacher training, and in other cases, you may need to search for what you need yourself. Of course, this is a double-edged sword.

With so much to discover and choose from, how do you narrow it down to what you need most and can realistically manage?

As you consider STEM professional development opportunities, remember to consider not only subject matter content—think about cross-discipline topics, for instance, teaching approaches to the engineering mindset, communication skills, or questioning as a teaching technique.

If you specialize in a particular STEM discipline, consider doing coursework outside of your discipline or in topics that cross disciplines, like assessments, PBL, or SEL. And look for training in tech that can both help your students in the classroom and help you to become conversant and connected as a “student of teaching.”  

Above all, however, trust your instincts: choose a program or topic that interests you and meets your needs for new understanding or techniques in the classroom.


Examples of STEM Professional Development OPPORTUNITIES

Here are some examples of STEM professional development opportunities that may spark some new ideas for your next PD experience:

  • Formal college-level coursework, seminars, conferences, or online classes. These may be provided on-site by your district or school or may be offered off-site or virtually by a variety of organizations, including professional associations, professional conferences, both for-profit and not-for-profit educational providers, universities, and colleges. Many provide continuing education credits and/or academic credit and are increasingly targeting K-12 teachers in the STEM fields. 

  • Peer learning initiatives. This can take the form of formal in-person or online journal clubs, classroom observation and mentoring or even an informal chats with colleagues in the staff room. 

  • Plain old-fashioned reading. There are the traditional teaching textbooks and print and online journals, as well as blogs by classroom teachers and education experts alike. 

  • Online discussion boards and forums. 

  • Independent research or investigation. You may have a topic you wish to research or investigate yourself. Some school districts provide financial support for their teachers’ research projects if they demonstrate a clear link to professional development and student learning. Funding can also be sourced from outside organizations.

    And there are an increasing number of programs at universities and other settings where teachers can get free or even paid summer STEM research experiences that provide them exposure to the research process, active participation in research in a particular discipline, mentoring for translating their experience to the classroom, and the opportunity to publish.

    In particular, the NSF’s Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) provides federal funding to programs all over the country. For example, the summer program in Computer Science at Florida International University is designed specifically for Miami-Dade County teachers from underrepresented groups. Search for RET programs by state here.

    Similarly, federally-funded ORISE in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, is dedicated to equipping elementary, middle, and high school teachers with tools and experiences to enhance their classroom instruction and student engagement. Teachers can work side-by-side with researchers at Oak Ridge National Labs during the summer, and also participate in professional development seminars and make use of ORISE teacher tools and resources throughout the year.
  • Independent teacher professional development programs by science institutes, museums, and organizations. Science museums and centers like New Jersey’s Liberty Science Center and the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh are increasingly offering sophisticated teacher professional development programs incorporating national and state-specific science teaching standards while providing access to the science center’s resources. Research your local science center to see if they offer something similar. 

    Similarly, NASA offers PD webinars for teachers, a conference for K-12 teachers (not just high school science teachers), and unique resources for teachers like workshops and teaching tools. If your area has a research institute or lab, check to see what they’re offering to teachers—or travel to one out of your area.

  • Some cities and regions boast a private, not-for-profit educational foundation or public-private partnership with a mission to support education and respond to the challenges of a particular area. The Philadelphia Education Fund, for example, provides a wide range of programs to Philadelphia students and public school teachers, including PD, Out-of-School hands-on experiences, and discussion forums that cross district boundaries. Look for a similar organization in your region. 

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