GO IN DEPTH

Why Can't We Attract Experienced Scientists into the Teaching Profession?

[Eds.: Thanks to AAAS SSE volunteer Robert Thomas of Scientific Writing Solutions for today's guest opinion blog post.]

I got downsized from my job as an analytical chemist for a leading manufacturer of laboratory instrumentation back in 2000. I worked for them for over 20 years, but when my division got sold, the new management decided that my position as a senior application scientist would be eliminated. I was devastated, not only because I felt they didn’t value my contribution, but it was also the day before my 50th birthday.

I had often thought about going into teaching, ever since my two children started going to kindergarten. I guess deep down, I wanted to influence them to choose a career in science. Although at five years of age, I’m not sure they would have been too receptive to that idea. So I put the teaching thing on hold and took up science writing, as I’d written many scientific papers as an analytical chemist. I started writing directly for journals and then picked up a small number of corporate clients writing magazine articles, newsletter pieces, and customer case studies. I was also misguided enough to take a couple of years out of my life to write a chemistry textbook on mass spectroscopy.

I did this for about eight years, until a lull in my freelance writing activities got me into volunteering with the AAAS/SSE STEM Volunteer Program, which puts retired scientists and engineers back into the classroom in the Washington, D.C., area. I thought it was the next best thing to teaching. I also wanted to see if I was suited to the profession, as I wasn’t doing a great job of convincing my two daughters that chemistry was a compelling subject to learn. After two years of volunteering at a local high school, I was convinced this was something I wanted to do. I was supporting three chemistry teachers by introducing real-world applications of chemistry into the classroom. The students saw a side of chemistry they had never seen before, the teachers saw the benefits in this, and I found it very rewarding.

Well, that’s where desire and reality didn’t quite blend together. When I looked into what it would take to become a teacher, I couldn’t believe how complicated it was. Here I was a 62-year old with a Graduate Degree in Analytical Chemistry, over 30 years’ experience as an analytical chemist, and I was being asked to sign away two years of my life to get certified. There were accelerated programs available, but it would still take me at least 12-18 months to become a teacher.

It didn’t make sense to me. I have great respect for the chemistry teachers I support, but while they were very enthusiastic and talented, most of them had gone straight from college into the classroom. In other words, they had no real-world experience of the subject they were teaching. This is something that experienced scientists and engineers can offer to K-12 education; but if we are to encourage them to go into the teaching profession, we have to make it easier for them to get certified.

It is well recognized that high-school students in the U.S. are falling way behind the rest of the world in science and math literacy as outlined in the recent PCAST Report: Prepare and Inspire: K-12 Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math for America’s Future. There is no question in my mind that having these experienced professionals involved in teaching our children about the wonders of science would make a huge impact on their understanding of the subject matter … and maybe encourage a few of them to think about it as a worthwhile career path.

Photo courtesy of Rob Thomas.

1 COMMENT

Virgenm Batista-Thomas SUBMITTED ON

I could not agree more. I graduated with a B.S. in Biology ; worked five years as a laboratory technician and was suddenly laid off. My position and many others in a research laboratory ended . Currently, I am completing a S.C. accelerated teaching program while I work as a teacher. I think that they make it more difficult than it should be despite the great need for science teachers in this country. Many people start the program and leave without completing it, resigning to their position. I hope for articles like this bring common sense to our nation and every state Board of Education, in need to use the available talent.

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