Science Education for All Nebraskans: Brought to You by Tenure

An interview with Dr. Beth Lewis, Professor of Teaching, Learning, and Teacher Education

Post-pandemic, there has been no end of concern about the issue of teacher shortages. At the beginning of the 2023-2024 school year, the Nebraska Department of Education (NDE) tracked over 900 unfilled positions across the state; one of the most common areas of shortage is in science education. NDE has noted science teacher shortages for the past fifteen years.

Faculty members at UNL are on the front lines of the effort to recruit, train, and retain science teachers for Nebraska’s classrooms. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Beth Lewis, Professor in the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Teacher Education at UNL, about her work with pre- and in-service science educators, and how tenure has enabled her to do the critical work of ensuring that all Nebraskan students have a high-quality science education. Below is a summary of our conversation, edited for length and focus.

Niehaus: So what brought you to UNL?

Lewis: I came here in 2009, and it was entirely for the job. I grew up in New England and went to school for my doctorate in Arizona, but the job here at UNL was exactly what I was looking for. I wanted to do research, so being at an R1 institution was really important to me. But I also have a passion for the professional preparation and development of science teachers, and this position enabled me to be involved in that as well.

Niehaus: Why is science teacher education so important to you?

In a place like Nebraska,  we often have socioscientific issues with water and agriculture, times when we have too much water and we have flooding and times when we don’t have enough. There are dynamics around energy resources. These are issues that have been around for a long time, and we need innovative solutions to address these and other issues that come up in the future. Science teachers are really important for encouraging kids to think about being a future  science major who will go on to work in a STEM career.

But scientific issues are also issues that are important to all Nebraskans, and science teachers educate our citizenry to be better informed, educated, and empowered to do something about the scientific issues that affect everyone.

Science teaching is a particularly difficult field for recruiting and retaining teachers, because teaching does not pay as well as science jobs. But if all kids in Nebraska don’t have strong science teachers, then not only are you not going to have students who want to pursue STEM careers, but you also aren’t going to have an informed citizenry to engage with these important issues.

Niehaus: Teacher recruitment and retention definitely have been huge issues lately, both here in Nebraska and across the country. How have you been involved in recruiting and retraining good science teachers for Nebraskan schools?

Lewis: I have been the PI for three Robert Noyce Science Teacher Grants from NSF [the National Science Foundation]. The first two focused on formulating a more efficient, but still rigorous, program for people with science degrees to become science teachers. This is the CEHS TLTE MAst program [Master of Arts with emphasis in science teaching]. Having been a geologist myself and then making a career change to be a science teacher, I understood that space and I understood what it meant to make a career change like that.

Through two of these NSF Noyce grants we recruited 90 people and paid for their master’s degree to become science teachers. Those folks have then gone on to teach all over Nebraska in high-need schools for at least 2 years as their required service.

These grants aren’t typically used for research, but running our MAst program  gave me a great opportunity to do a longitudinal study of teachers in both of our programs – we also have a long-standing undergraduate program  – to help inform our understanding of what aspects are more effective in the professional preparation of new science teachers.

Now, we also have a third NSF Noyce grant for in-service teachers to become Master Teaching Fellows. The previous grants were focused on pre-service teachers, but NSF has recognized for a long time that retention of math and science teachers is also challenging. So, in this grant we have recruited really good science teachers who we want to keep in the classroom, but who might think about leaving to go into administration or just leaving education altogether. They receive a salary of supplement of $11,000 per year for five years, the status of being a Noyce Master Teaching Fellow, and professional development towards an Educational Specialist degree. In return, they are required to stay in their current school or another high-need school for at least 5 more years. Through our program they are also designing leadership projects in science education that are rooted in issues in their own districts or that are relevant throughout the state or region.

The goal of these projects has always been to elevate science education in Nebraska, either through producing highly qualified new science teachers or keeping those who are already teaching in their classrooms.

Niehaus: You mentioned research that you have been able to do as part of your work with the NSF Noyce grants. Can you tell me more about that work? What have been the most important findings from your research?

Lewis: I think there have been some interesting policy implications, which I hadn’t expected to come out of this research. There was a national report on teacher preparation in the U.S. in 2010 from the National Research Council, and the chapter on science teachers noted that we didn’t actually know what the minimum science content knowledge needed was for science teachers. Thus, every state has been setting their teacher certification policy based on a hunch, which ranged from minimal standards for science content knowledge to undergraduate degrees in science. There are general science endorsements which are an inch deep and a mile wide, as opposed to single-subject endorsements, which are more in depth requiring a minor or a major in for example biology or chemistry. Many states have gotten rid of these general science endorsements because they recognize that it is really important for teachers, particularly at the high school level, to have that deep knowledge of what they are teaching.

In Nebraska, however, we have not done that. So for students in Nebraska, they may be getting a teacher who is teaching out of field. They might have a minimum required 24 credit hours in biology as a single-subject teaching endorsement, but they are assigned to teach physics or Earth and space science. And that can lead to a lot of problems. If you don’t expect teachers to be competent in the content area they are teaching, how can you expect them not to pass on misconceptions to their students? And if teachers don’t have enough content knowledge themselves, they won’t be teaching in an engaging, real-life, inquiry-based way, instead they default to lecture and note-taking. Those science classes are then less engaging for kids and they start losing interest. In contrast, if you have a teacher who’s really knowledgeable and passionate, and can be really responsive to kids’ questions and engage with them authentically around the science, you have a much better chance of generating more interest with the kids and having stronger science literacy outcomes.

It is not just Nebraska of course; there are national implications for science teacher content knowledge expectations. When I first came to Nebraska I learned that there just isn’t enough research to make better policies here or anywhere else. But now we do have research on this through our own study of Nebraska science teachers. For example, we found that in order for chemistry teachers to pass a test of high school level chemistry content, and avoid having common misconceptions themselves, new chemistry teachers need to have at least 30 credit hours with a 3.2 GPA.

This all came from my own frustration with not getting traction for setting higher content knowledge standards with stakeholders. I understood that they needed and wanted to see applicable research. So, with my research team we did over 800 classroom observations over 4 years, looking at teachers’ use of scientific practices by discipline.

Niehaus: So how has tenure played a role in your ability to do research?

Lewis: First, publications and tenure can often be a numbers game. But I do longitudinal work, which does not result in quick publications. Fortunately, I had the support of my deans over time, who said yes, this is valuable work, this is what our field needs because it tells us what we are doing well and where we need to improve. It gives us a sense for how to inform policy. But, do I have half a dozen publications a year?  No, I do not. But that is because this kind of work takes time. And so, without having tenure, and without having that kind of support, I wouldn’t be able to do this type of foundational work in service to the field.

Second, science education is not without controversy. The teaching of evolution, climate change, vaccinations, people’s understanding of what it means to be human as one species of many…there are a lot of things in our lives that bump up against the teaching of science. And it is really important to know that tenure is there in case issues arise.

Third, we have gone through fluctuations in enrollment in our science teacher preparation programs. There have been years when we have had low numbers as compared to social studies and English language arts preservice teachers. But then there have been years, like back during the late 2000’s recession, where science jobs were slim and so people’s thoughts turned to science teaching and our enrollments were more comparable. The pressure to have larger numbers of students might not play out so well if I didn’t have tenure. Other places with small numbers of preservice teachers overall hire adjuncts, but then the quality of their education is not as high. You need someone who understands the field deeply and not just someone who is doing this as an extra job on the side. Adjuncts who are good science teachers themselves aren’t knowledgeable about the research in the field. They don’t have the same big picture. They aren’t going to the same science education research conferences I am going to; they are not engaged in the research that I am engaged in while I am mentoring doctoral students to be future teacher educators and researchers. And ultimately our future science teachers while they are UNL students benefit from the fact that my research informs how I run our science teacher education program and my teaching of those courses.

If there wasn’t tenure, I would need to make other plans and ultimately leave. My job keeps me here because I love my work here at UNL. I hope that Nebraska and UNL will continue to provide me with the kind of support, stability, and inspiration that I need to keep doing good work here.