Hamline News

October 01, 2009

Science Teachers and Students Make Big Strides

Bonnie Stevenson-Tapper is a science teacher at the Adolescent Girls and Parenting Education High School in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Like teachers throughout the state, she is expected to teach her students the science needed to pass the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment test and meet state graduation requirements.

There’s just one catch: Stevenson-Tapper is the only science teacher at the small urban high school and is only licensed to teach high school biology and physical sciences through ninth grade. But, to meet the new Minnesota science graduation requirements, she needs to teach either chemistry or physics, as well.

Stevenson-Tapper contemplated following the path that other teachers have been taken—spending a large amount of money and time to acquire an additional science teaching license.  

“A teacher I know at a nearby high school was licensed in physics, which is great, but biology is required by the State of Minnesota. To meet state law, he had to pay all that money out of his pocket for college courses and spend several summers to get his biology license so he could keep his job. That would be a real hardship for me,” Stevenson-Tapper said.

Fortunately, she did not have to go that route. Instead, she applied for Hamline University’s Minnesota Science Teachers Education Project, or MnSTEP.

MnSTEP’s roots date back to 2006, when Lee Schmitt, a program director for the Hamline University School of Education’s Center for Global Environmental Education, wrote a Math and Science Partnership Grant to the State of Minnesota requesting basically all of the state’s yearly federal funds designated for science teacher professional development.

“No one has ever tried that before. Usually, these are smaller block grants that go out to universities and districts to fund smaller projects,” Schmitt said. “But, with the infrastructure and networking we have, I thought Hamline University could put together a large, comprehensive, state-wide science professional development program. And, the State agreed. It gave us the grant for 2.3 million dollars over three years”

The MnSTEP program has two components. First, it offers continuing education courses in science content, which are required for teachers in Minnesota. And, second, it offers an additional licensure program in physics and chemistry for secondary science teachers. Best of all, both components of MnSTEP are offered to teachers free of charge.

Early on, it was decided that both programs needed to be tightly focused on the Minnesota science standards that comprise the Minnesota basic standards tests.

“We looked at the Minnesota academic standards for K-12 and divided them based on disciplines,” says Schmitt. “We took the topics of chemistry, physics, earth science, biology and environmental studies, and inquiry, and created an elementary institute and a secondary institute for each.”

Unlike other programs that require teachers to commute to the organization hosting the program, MnSTEP offers its courses at locations throughout Minnesota. This accommodates teachers both within and outside of the Twin Cities.

For Sue Van Kekerix, who teaches at Minnehaha Elementary in Two Harbors, Minnesota, the regionally-located programs have been essential.

“Two Harbors has been economically depressed for some time, leaving the local school district scrambling for resources,” Van Kekerix said. “Access to high quality science curriculum has become a challenge. MnSTEP has filled the science education void in my classroom.”

While helping to better prepare her elementary students for higher levels of science, MnSTEP also has made science learning a lot of fun.

“The kids have had a ball this year, and I can’t believe how many parents have raved about how much their children love science,” Van Kekerix said.

Back at Hamline, Schmitt has his own theory about what teachers love about the program.

“MnSTEP courses are inquiry based to model the requirements of the Minnesota science standards. Teachers are not sitting in chairs in parallel rows for eight hours. Instead they are working with materials. They are investigating. They are raising their own questions. We offer very social, very interactive institutes. There are no lectures allowed until after teachers engage with the phenomenon, form their own hypotheses and develop questions,” he said.

Joe Helm, a teacher at Irondale High School in New Brighton, could not agree more.

“There are many continuing education programs out there and a lot them are not very good,” Helm said. “In some of the programs, you just sit in a desk, and someone lectures about things that you already sort of know. MnSTEP isn’t like that at all.”

Schmitt said he is pleased to be helping individual teachers, but the program is designed to address large-scale issues in education, as well.

“There is a shortage of science teachers, and the need for highly-qualified science teachers is becoming increasingly more important with the changing nature of the American economy,” Schmitt said. “There are a host of global environmental problems, for example, that will require a new generation of scientists and scientifically literate citizens.”

MnSTEP is designed to lessen this shortage through its additional licensure programs in physics and chemistry. The requirements for high school graduation in Minnesota have recently changed to require either chemistry or physics, in addition to biology.

“Many larger schools have not felt the impact, as it is common for them to have several science teachers—each with a different focus,” Schmitt said. “In smaller schools in rural regions of the state and at smaller specialty schools, however, frequently there just is one science teacher who is only licensed to teach one subject, most often, biology.”

Schmitt said to remedy the licensing problem, a teacher would have to go back to school to get that particular license, and teachers often do not have the time or resources to do so.

Through MnSTEP, teachers can sign up for the Physics Accreditation for Science Educators or Chemistry Coursework for Additional Licensure programs to get the classes they need to meet the accreditation standards for either subject at no cost.

These two programs have connections to Hamline University’s College of Liberal Arts, as well. The physics courses are designed and taught during the summer, and online during the school year, by Hamline physics professor Andy Rundquist. Rundquist has focused the courses around the Minnesota science teaching standards. Hamline chemistry professors Rita Majerle and Ole Runquist teach the chemistry courses for licensure.

This component has been especially valuable for Stevenson-Tapper, who will be finishing the chemistry program this summer.

“Ole Runquist was great! He has come over to my high school twice already and helped me figure out how to bump up the rigor. It’s wonderful. Students feel more confident in chemistry now. They feel like they’re succeeding.”

While the program has helped Stevenson-Tapper gain the chemistry license she needed, she also has noticed that having a professor come to class has made some of her students think harder about college.

None of this comes as a surprise to Schmitt who said they are finding that teachers are gaining new enthusiasm and confidence in their abilities to teach these different science topics, which, in the end, has a positive effect on the students.

Stevenson-Tapper, Van Kekerix, Helm, and their classrooms of students are not the only ones who have been positively affected by the MnSTEP program. Since the summer of 2007 when the first MnSTEP courses began, nearly 1,000 Minnesota science teachers have participated and in turn have impacted the education of more than 80,000 K-12 students in Minnesota.

And, word about Hamline’s successful MnSTEP program is getting out. Schmitt and fellow MnSTEP administrator Shawn Hubert recently presented at a conference hosted by the U.S. Department of Education. After their presentation, they were asked to serve on a conference panel, because, as they were informed by a representative from the Department of Education, MnSTEP is considered one of the premiere professional development projects in the country.