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December 1, 2006
Vol. 64
No. 4

Preparing Tomorrow's Science Teachers

With the right kind of preparation, even the most reluctant science teachers can learn to plan lessons and activities that will excite and educate their students.

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Every semester, undergraduates file into their science methods class at Sam Houston State University and sit down with their arms folded, their heels dug in, and an expression on their faces that says, “I dare you to try and make me a science teacher.” Some are grumbling, “I don't know why I have to be here. I'm not going to teach science if I can help it.” By the end of the semester, most will love the class—and science—but the journey from the first day of class to the semester's end is challenging.
At the beginning of each semester, we survey all the science methods students about their talents and interests and their previous exposure to science. Although we hope that all of the students have had positive science education experiences on which to build, only about half of the students typically rate their elementary, middle school, high school, and college science experiences as “good” or “exceptional.”

Who Are These Undergraduates?

Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, has over 15,000 students, with about 3,500 students in the College of Education. The students in the science methods class are working toward their teaching certification in such programs as early childhood through grade 4, grades 4–8, English as a second language (ESL), bilingual education, and special education. Many are reluctant science learners. In spring 2006, only 18 of the 84 students (21 percent) selected science as the subject they most wanted to teach. Most (89 percent) were in their twenties, which means that even those with recent experience in taking science classes had not experienced science teaching that made them want to teach science themselves.
Teaching a course for which fewer than half of the students have a positive foundation is daunting. However, these future teachers need to do more than just teach science adequately. They need to inspire the scientists—and science teachers—of tomorrow.

Goals and Strategies for Science Teacher Preparation

  • Show students the benefits of teaching science.
  • Teach students to use a wide range of resources to develop effective science lessons.
  • Help students recognize what good science looks and sounds like in classrooms.
  • Empower students to be confident in their ability to learn and teach science.
We've found that the following strategies can strengthen teacher candidates' confidence in their ability to explore science with their young charges. Although our experience primarily involves teacher candidates, the strategies can also be adapted to use in professional development programs with more experienced teachers.


According to our surveys, many teacher candidates did not participate in labs in elementary or middle school. They need to experience hands-on, minds-on inquiry right away, on the first day if possible. Good activities for the first day include those that teach grouping strategies, collaboration techniques, process skills, lab safety, lab responsibilities, or scheduling of rotating lab jobs.
One possible activity for teaching process skills involves working in cooperative groups to classify 15 miscellaneous objects (crayon, pencil, wooden block, paper clip, penny, marble, and so on). Students sort the objects into various groupings and then discuss as a class the different ways they found to classify the objects. Examples of classifications include how the objects are used, their shape and size, and whether they are manmade or natural. Students are then asked to re-sort the objects into two groups so that they understand dichotomy classification. At the end of class, we discuss how the activity might be adapted to particular grade levels. We do lab activities throughout the semester.

Science Journaling

Sometimes writing helps us find new ideas or new ways of approaching a problem that we can't uncover by just thinking or talking (Rainer, 1978). In journals, teacher candidates reflect on their thoughts about class activities. They may ask questions or suggest how they might do an activity in their own classrooms.
Journals can also serve as a two-way communication line between student and teacher. A student can raise issues requiring a response from the teacher, who then writes in the student's journal or discusses the issue in class.

Exploring Science Web Sites

The Internet offers abundant science information, but few teachers have time to thoroughly explore online resources. Assigning pairs of students to visit specific Web sites and share information about them with the class is a good way to give all students a wealth of information on science education sites without requiring them to explore all the sites on their own.
  • Who produced the site?
  • Does the site have a students' section? A teachers' section?
  • Does the site have lesson plans for teachers to use?
  • Does the site provide links to other resources?
  • Does the site have up-to-date information?
  • Does the site have sufficient graphics and illustrations to help with understanding?
Each pair then creates a chart giving a tour of the site and presents it to the class for the benefit of all.

Guest Scientists

Guest speakers can provide active learning experiences in their area of specialty. For example, James DeShaw, professor of environmental science at Sam Houston State University, mesmerizes students on field trips with his boundless knowledge of the area's environmental history and his conversational delivery style.
Although resources vary from town to town, good guest speakers with practical scientific experience exist in almost every community. Good sources of speakers include local zoos, hospitals, county extension offices, plant nurseries, airports, fire departments, local manufacturers, television meteorological departments, museums, and universities. Organizations such as Women and Science (www.uwosh.edu/wis/speak.htm) can also locate speakers.
The key to ensuring that speakers keep students actively involved is discussing goals and expectations before the visit. Having students write down questions ahead of time and e-mailing them to the speaker can also help the speaker tailor the presentation to students' specific interests.

Field Trips

Each semester, we spend a day in the woods with Project Learning Tree (American Forest Foundation, 2006), an environmental education program for grades K–8. Each lesson is aligned with the National Science Standards and state science mandates—in our case, Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills.
Quite a few of the teacher candidates in our program are not the outdoor type. They worry about what the temperature will be that day, what insects might be out and about, and where they will be sitting. But after a day of walking, jumping, running, climbing, and even lying down outside, they applaud the experience. During their field-teaching experience, the methods students usually present a lesson from Project Learning Tree.

Judging Science Fairs

Four years ago, two small rural school districts in East Texas asked for volunteers from among the science methods students to help judge elementary science fairs. Interest was so great that the students had to work in pairs because there were more volunteers than the schools actually required.
After interviewing enthusiastic children all day about their “way cool” projects, the teacher candidates came back to the group on a high. Even when their judging time was up and they were free to go, most stayed for the awards presentation, rooting for the students whose projects they had judged. The novice judges often chatted among themselves, bidding one another to “come see this really neat one I got to judge.” They learned how exciting and important science can be to elementary students.

Scope and Sequence

As teachers race through the school year, they must be careful not to leave out any mandated learning experiences. If teachers simply find “gee whiz” activities and then try to match them to mandates that support the activity, their young students' foundations of science knowledge will look like Swiss cheese (with essential elements missing).
One helpful activity for preparing for this challenge is to assign each student a grade level (from preK to grade 8) and put them in teams that include one person for each level to discuss state expectations. By the end of the session, teacher candidates realize that each grade level builds on the others and that their contributions are important to the grade levels following their own. Teacher candidates learn to pace their teaching through the school year, cluster concepts that naturally fit together to form units, and then develop those wonderful lesson plans and learning activities.
Students in our program have said that creating their own scope-and-sequence document was one of the most valuable projects they did. Even though many school districts have a scope and sequence in place, not all do. One student took her science scope-and-sequence document to a job interview, and the superintendent asked to copy it because he wanted all his teachers doing a scope and sequence like hers.


Because many students have never seen high-quality science teaching, videos can show them what they can do with real students in their own classrooms. The videos produced by Carin, Bass, and Contant as a supplement to their college textbook, Teaching Science as Inquiry (2005), provide good examples using a diverse array of teachers. Other helpful videos include Science K–6: Investigating Classrooms(1999) andLearning Science Through Inquiry (2000).
Before viewing the videos, the teacher candidates are told what to look for. They might identify strategies modeled in the video that they can use in their own teaching, moments that made them uncertain about the effectiveness of the strategy, and any formative assessments they saw. We then analyze what happened in the video, rewinding and fast-forwarding to crucial moments. The videos would not be as valuable without the accompanying discussion.

Long-Term Observations

Students and teachers need to realize that real science is not a series of 30-minute experiments completed twice a week. It is an ongoing process that requires observation over time. Students in our program typically do one of three long-term observations during the semester. They may raise mealworms to witness metamorphosis (and overcome the “yuck” factor some suffer from); grow plants using Wisconsin Fast Plants (www.fastplants.org) or hydroponics; or observe the moon for two weeks or more.

Professional Development Hours

Teacher candidates should be expected to garner professional development hours by teaching or volunteering in museums, planetariums, exhibits, workshops, and other science settings. For example, our local Gem and Mineralogical Society calls on students to help stage a Rock Fest at a nearby high school each year. While assisting the geologists with demonstrations, the preservice teachers learn alongside the young students who attend the event.

Field Experience

Pairs of teacher candidates are assigned to student teach in a real classroom. Some find themselves in classes where science has been on the back burner in favor of more heavily tested subjects like reading and math. In those classrooms, science is often “taught” through worksheets and textbooks with questions at the end of the chapter. Will the teacher candidates—especially those who've never liked science—fall into this routine? Or will they provide the exciting hands-on experiences they've enjoyed and learned all semester?

Confidence and Passion

We cannot expect teachers to teach science effectively if they've never experienced the excitement of science. Colleges of education must recognize this need and create experiences that instill a love of science in even the most hesitant teachers.
Good science teachers don't have to have all the answers to scientific questions, but they do need to be able to ask the right questions and seek out the answers with their students. Good teacher education in science should help prospective teachers build the confidence and the passion to share exciting science experiences with students.

American Forest Foundation (2006).Project learning tree: Environmental education preK–8 activity guide. Washington, DC: Author.

Carin, A. A., Bass, J. E., & Contant, T. L. (2005).Teaching science as inquiry (10th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Learning science through inquiry [video] (2000). New York: Thirteen/WNET.

Rainer, T. (1978). The new diary. Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher.

Science K–6: Investigating classrooms[video]. (1999). Boston: WGBH.

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