UT students cross disciplines in an effort to enhance the teaching of science profession

AUSTIN, Texas Students are studying each other at The University of Texas at Austin. University students participating in a new sociology course this spring formed a market research firm and embarked upon a semester-long investigation of trends in teaching interests among students enrolled in the natural sciences. The topic of research was provided by the "client" for the semester - the College of Natural Sciences.

The research theme was selected by Dean Mary Ann Rankin and several faculty members in the natural sciences, who met with sociology professors Chandra Muller and Cynthia Buckley in the fall of 1996 to discuss their desire to stimulate interest in the teaching profession among UT science students.The interest in providing additional information about teaching as a career for UT science students reflects the current national concern over the supply of qualified teachers in science at the primary and secondary level, Buckley said. She and Muller have applied for a Texas Academic Research grant to expand the study to look at six other universities in Texas.

The sociology students presented the results of their study to Rankin and other members of the natural sciences faculty at the end of the semester. A three-part study (survey, focus groups and interviews) was conducted by UT sociology honors students enrolled in the "Sociological Inquiry" course taught by Buckley.

The students had several goals including: identifying traits associated with teaching interests among UT science students; identifying trends in career goals and orientations among UT science students; identifying how UT science students perceive primary and secondary school teaching as a career; and assessing potential alternatives in providing career guidance, particularly in regards to teaching, to UT science students.

Research results point to several interesting findings, Buckley said:

  • Gender is not a significant predictor in who is more likely to be interested in teaching. While more women surveyed had actually sought information regarding teacher certification, the group interested in obtaining information regarding teaching as a profession was equally split between men and women.

  • While teaching was seen as an attractive career path due to attributes such as the ability to help others and personal fulfillment, it was generally viewed as a low paying and low prestige occupation by all students.

  • There exists a large pool of potential teachers among natural science students. While less than 18 percent of those surveyed had actually sought information concerning teaching certification, nearly 33 percent expressed interested in receiving information about teaching as a career.

  • Junior and seniors were more likely to be interested in obtaining information about becoming a science teacher, than freshmen and sophomores. This reflects both the higher level of career concerns among upper-classmen and the fact that juniors and seniors had much lower earning expectations that freshmen and sophomores.

"The students (sociology) have done an excellent job and we are excited about the high quality of the research study," said Rankin at the presentation. "The data will be incredibly useful to us as we begin to focus more on the teaching profession."

The College of Natural Sciences already is developing a comprehensive new curriculum for pre-teacher training in math and science, the dean said. "Four new degree programs for pre-teacher training in biology, chemistry, geological sciences and physics, and an improved program in math teacher education provide the foundation for this major new initiative to train future 'teachers/leaders' for Texas and the United States," she said.

Rankin said the college is undertaking the proposed $1.3 million pre-teacher initiative in response to growing concern over the quality of math/science instruction in elementary and secondary classroom; poor test performance by elementary and secondary students; and the low number of students who participate in college-preparation courses.

The program envisioned for the college offers math/science content and training for students who plan to become teachers anywhere in the pre-K through grade 12 continuum. Prospective teachers at the pre-K through elementary school level need not identify themselves as majors in the college in order to participate in the pre-teacher math/science project.

"The College of Natural Sciences has almost no history of math/science K-12 teacher interactions of the nature described for the pre-teacher training initiative," Rankin said. "This allows great latitude for the design of a truly innovative program. The college considers this to be one of its most important undertakings. The future of math/science education in the state and nation, and the future of those children who will become the work force of tomorrow is at stake, and argues for the comprehensive pre-K through grade 12 continuum envisioned by the college initiative."

The new pre-teacher training program in the natural sciences builds on and extends the broad-based interactions already established by the Dana Center in the K-12 teaching community; and on the work with Advanced Placement teachers done by the Institute for Science and Math Education in the College of Natural Sciences over the past three years, Rankin said.