It Takes a University: Re-Envisioning a Role for University Associations to Support STEM Faculty to Prepare Future Science Teachers

Howard Gobstein


For those interested in improving STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, present intense national attention offers immense potential. November 2011 marks the third anniversary of the launch of the Association of Public and Landgrant Universities’ (APLU) Science and Mathematics Teacher Imperative (SMTI). As the Executive Vice-President of APLU and the Co-Director of SMTI, I appreciate this opportunity to discuss how we strive to support and complement the important work of faculty in a vital portion of reform – ensuring well-prepared science and mathematics teachers.

The APLU is a 220-member association of public research universities including all the Land-grants and several dozen major university systems. The time is ripe for significant progress. There is hardly a day during which I don’t see an announcement of a seminar or talk by a national group either decrying lagging international competitiveness in student achievement or in some other way touting their dedicated efforts in education reform – much relating to STEM.

APLU has stepped up to the challenges of increasing the number and improving the preparation of science and mathematics teachers in its member institutions. As the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology noted a year ago in Prepare and Inspire, its report to President Obama, “the recent commitment to improve teacher education by more than 120 higher education institutions through the Association of Public Land-grant Universities’ Science and Mathematics Teacher Imperative is a move in the right direction.” Indeed, President Obama personally offered plaudits to several university presidents during an Educate to Innovate celebration at the White House in January 2010. I assert that a year later we have taken even greater moves in this right direction: APLU’s SMTI is the most ambitious effort in the nation thus far to help public higher education institutions assess and improve the quality, and increase the number, of K-12 science and mathematics teachers.

As I write this essay in mid September, our colleagues at the Association of American Universities (AAU) – an association of major public and private research universities – are announcing a parallel ambitious initiative to help institutions assess the quality of undergraduate STEM teaching on their campuses, share best practices, and create incentives for their departments and faculty members to adopt the most effective teaching methods in their classes: see 

As interest in science teaching and learning continues to grow by many kinds of organizations around the nation, it is timely to review how SMTI emerged. As SMTI plans for the future, we seek guidance from physics faculty, particularly those engaged in Phys- TEC (see Teacher Preparation Section article in this issue).

How SMTI came about and connected with PhysTEC

In 2006, I was charged with developing an APLU-led initiative to respond to the recommendations of the National Academies’ Rising Above the Gathering Storm. The first recommendation – the highest priority of the report – was to prepare 10,000 new science and math teachers. We took time to carefully identify the most appropriate role for APLU in teacher preparation, establishing an ad-hoc commission led by the Chancellor of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Joining him were several university presidents and provosts, STEM and education faculty, former governors, a chief state school officer, an urban school superintendent and two practicing teachers. By late 2007/early 2008, we were engaged in substantive discussions with our own APLU groups, such as our councils of presidents and of provosts. We also reached out to outside groups. It was in the hall of a Senate office building, outside a hearing room, that I first learned about PhysTEC and experienced the driving vision of Ted Hodapp, APS’s Director of Education and Diversity. He energetically described how APS, working with AAPT, would address the nation’s need for well-prepared physics teachers by igniting action in physics departments. He told me of my association’s important role to develop the support of university leaders for the ongoing initiative in physics and also to stimulate similar action by other university STEM departments. We discussed how APLU might craft a role complementary and supportive to that of APS.

The time was right for this idea, and our ad-hoc commission came to the same conclusion as Hodapp – that APLU should create a way to stimulate university presidents and provosts to commit to action to increase the supply and improve the preparation of science and mathematics teachers. They recognized that while faculty provide the instruction and run programs, universities needed to provide supportive institutional environments, including policies, organization, resources, recognition, and rewards. Therein was the genesis of SMTI.

With an initial surge to 100 committed institutions, today the presidents and provosts of 125 major public institutions (including top research institutions and those serving urban, rural and minority populations), along with 12 university systems across 43 states, have committed to SMTI. These institutions prepare some 8000 science and mathematics teachers annually, making SMTI the nation’s largest STEM teacher preparation initiative.

In physics teacher preparation, SMTI institutions are increasingly important. Currently, they produce almost 20% of all new physics teachers annually and perhaps up to half of the best-prepared ones. (Unfortunately, due to differences in state certification definitions for physics teachers, it’s not a simple matter to derive a more precise number.) Over half of SMTI institutions are PhysTEC members – and constitute some 30% of PhysTEC’s 222 member institutions. On these campuses there is focused effort to prepare more well-prepared teachers using PhysTEC’s strategies, which include, among other things, using master teachers to develop bridges between physics departments, schools of education, and local K-12 school districts; and transforming content and pedagogy courses for future physics and physical science teachers to promote learning through interactive engagement. APLU will work to increase SMTI institutions’ membership in PhysTEC.

SMTI leverages regularly scheduled meetings and communications with APLU groups to engage the leadership of institutions to stimulate them to act. Preceding our official launch in 2008, the Chancellor of the University System of Maryland got the focused attention of an APLU Council of Presidents meeting as he was first to announce that his system would triple the number of science and mathematics teachers prepared. Since then, fifty institutions and two systems have signed on to double the number of science and mathematics teachers they prepare. We also collect annual data on the teachers prepared, by discipline, by each institution. (See

Sharing Information

While galvanizing our presidents and provosts is important, it is only part of the equation – presidents and provosts do not teach students. As an organization that deals primarily with leaders in higher education, APLU did not have a mechanism for direct interactions with faculty in member institutions. So our concept was to build relationships with disciplinary and education faculty in two major ways. First, presidents or provosts designate a primary campus liaison to SMTI, thus officially sanctioning SMTI on each campus. Second, SMTI works closely with disciplinary societies – beginning with the American Physical Society (APS) and the American Chemical Society (ACS) – to engage faculty in strategic discussions about improving science teacher preparation. As we identify models of methods to support communication on campus among faculty and administrative leaders, we communicate them to our member institutions. SMTI has become a regular participant at PhysTEC meetings, where we organize an increasingly popular annual session called “A Provost, a Dean and Chair discuss physics teacher preparation.” Within APLU, we frequently highlight the work of individual institutions and the progress of SMTI during meeting sessions.

SMTI also serves our community in many quiet ways, including creating strategic communications opportunities between senior administrators and STEM faculty involved in teacher preparation. For example, an urban university president was getting ready to welcome a SMTI meeting on his campus. When I mentioned all the good work of PhysTEC, he asked his provost, who was standing nearby, “Do we have one of them?” This question provided a perfect opportunity to pull the PhysTEC faculty PI into the conversation, giving him a chance – repeated many times since – to give his president an update on what they were doing and how it worked with local schools.

APLU institutions, especially those already committed to SMTI, already participate in numerous programs aimed at producing STEM teachers. But we found a big challenge in the university programs: there was hardly any cross-institutional communication to compare programs, foster improvement and stimulate attention to increasing the numbers and quality of teachers prepared. There wasn’t a convener across universities like PhysTEC does across physics departments. To address this, SMTI’s mission is to galvanize university leadership and focus the multitude of institutions (and their programs) toward becoming a community in which education and science and mathematics faculty gain more visibility for their critical teaching efforts, and they share practices, innovations and challenges across their various program approaches. To make this happen, SMTI began convening annual meetings of member faculty and university leaders. Sessions include invited keynotes as well as selected panel presentations. Through an NSFsupported RETA grant entitled Promoting Institutional Change to Strengthen Science Teacher Preparation (under the Math and Science Partnership program), SMTI is providing a pilot study of how institutional change depends both on top leadership commitment and faculty ownership of the actions. SMTI is focusing on top leadership commitment; the faculty ownership part of the project is being conducted through collaboration with PhysTEC and the American Chemical Society, to build support for the creation of the Chemistry Teacher Education Coalition (CTEC) – a chemistry equivalent of PhysTEC.

Moving Forward: A Focus on Both Quantity and Quality 

Now that SMTI has gained the commitment of university leaders to increase the quantity of science and mathematics teachers, we have begun a complementary focus on improving the quality of teacher preparation programs. With our “Analytic Framework” (AF) we have created – for the first time – a unique common taxonomy of attributes for science and mathematics teacher preparation programs. The AF is being developed as a mechanism to assess individual programs and to benchmark programs against promising practices in teacher preparation across a university system or region, or against national initiatives. We developed this teacher program assessment tool over the past several years from hundreds of hours of site visits, focus groups, and literature review. The AF has been extensively validated through comparisons with major programs such as UTeach, through comparison with national report recommendations, and through testing in individual institutions and across programs in a state. SMTI is also piloting a peer-reviewed system of identifying “promising practices” in components or entire programs of science and mathematics teacher preparation. During the next few years, we plan to administer the AF to institutions and systems, and provide the technical assistance necessary for them to identify and implement program improvements.

As a follow-on activity, this fall, we are launching a three-stage effort to identify quality parameters of science and mathematics teacher preparation programs. First, we will conduct interviews and focus groups of experts in disciplinary teacher preparation. In physics we will draw on the 2010 APS Report synopsis of the “National Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics,” and we will involve individuals who served on that task force and in discussions within APS on the quality of physics teaching. Second, we will commission papers on the best practices in the preparation of teachers generally, and on the preparation of science and mathematics teachers specifically. Third, in spring 2012, we will hold a small workshop of experts to discuss what constitutes effectiveness in science and mathematics teacher preparation. The result will be our best sense of quality science and mathematics teacher preparation today to contribute to the national discussion and will also inform the ongoing improvement of the AF.

Forum on Common Core State Standards and Teacher Preparation

SMTI has begun work on the role of higher education in preparing teachers to teach the common core state standards in mathematics and the next generation science standards. The states’ adoption of common standards offers perhaps our best opportunity to boost the capacity of science and mathematics teachers to work consistently across states.

We are in the early stages of a project to develop model programs to prepare mathematics teachers for the more rigorous demands of the common core state standards for mathematics. During SMTI’s annual meeting last June, several faculty members launched this urgent effort for pre-service programs, as the mathematics standards are beginning to be put in place by states. We have enlisted some of the leading mathematics faculty and leaders of mathematics education programs to participate in a variety of ways – on our advisory board, planning committee, etc. This effort complements work already underway by mathematics professional societies, such as the Conference Board on the Mathematical Sciences, to provide professional development of in-service teachers.

Focusing on science, SMTI is convening an exploratory meeting in September to engage disciplinary societies in the ambitious transformational vision of the NRC’s recent Framework for K-12 Science Education. Participants are from NRC (including Dr. Helen Quinn, chair of the effort), Achieve, AAAS, NSTA and the societies representing the 4 major disciplinary clusters contained in that report. The discussion will focus on science teacher quality and preparation in the era of the next generation of science standards. Although new science standards will not emerge for a year or so, it is not too early to engage the higher education and science community in discussions about key aspects of the framework, e.g., how to prepare teachers around science and engineering practices and cross-cutting concepts.

Common Vision, Commitment, and Collective Action 

We at APLU continue to seek ideas and opportunities to more fully contribute to national efforts as this evolution toward greater attention to teaching and learning continues. How might APLU help, for example, by 1) supporting faculty, perhaps by serving as a platform for collective action around important educational issues; 2) enabling other collaborations to occur, such as the effort across universities to improve mathematics teacher preparation; or 3) incubating groups from various universities to pursue development or demonstration projects, and then provide opportunities to convey their findings to a larger community of faculty and university leaders. We welcome your input on these and other ideas.

I close with some observations of admirable practices by faculty, as I have learned from SMTI and society meetings.
  • Attend PhysTEC meetings to take advantage of sharing experiences, and research on learning and promising practices;
  • Identify attributes of model programs (such as the Learning Assistants program begun by University of Colorado, Boulder, now promoted as part of PhysTEC); and consider their fit with your existing effort;
  • If you are a more senior faculty member with some standing in your department, provide younger faculty with encouragement, guidance, support and recognition;
  • Build a larger critical mass of science faculty engaged in research on teaching and research or teacher preparation, and promote the concept of CTEC to colleagues in chemistry;
  • Get further blessing from your dean of science for a more strategic, research-based focus on preparing science teachers across your college;
  • Seek out education faculty as collaborators, and with them, connections and collaborations with local/regional school systems;
  • If your institution or university system is a member of SMTI, identify and contact the institutional liaison and contribute to their campus efforts;
And, perhaps most important of all:
  • Become a role model for your own physics students – particularly undergraduates – encouraging those who might be interested in teaching physics and helping them to identify how they might pursue their interest, at whatever education level. Students can’t be what they can’t see. Programs such as Learning Assistants enable students to develop teaching skills with junior classmates, and check out whether it’s something they wish to pursue, all while they assist professors and other students.

Howard Gobstein is Executive Vice President of Research, Innovation and STEM Education at the Association of Public and Landgrant Universities and Co-Director of the Science and Mathematics Teacher Imperative. He has been an avid advocate and analyst of university research and education while serving at APLU, OSTP, Michigan State and University of Michigan, AAU and GAO. Howard would like to thank Donna Gerardi Riordan and Kacy Redd for their assistance in preparing this article.

Disclaimer- The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.