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What Can Science Teachers Do to Engage Students Better?

UTeach shares tips on making classes excel beyond the standards.

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Students in the United States have consistently ranked below their international peers academically, particularly in math and science. And the problem could have considerable economic and environmental ramifications for the country.

Science education experts at UTeach, a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) teacher preparation program at The University of Texas at Austin, say the skills students need go beyond focusing on things such as content mastery. It is important to know how to use the quadratic equation or balance a chemical reaction, but to compete in a global world students need to be trained in problem solving. Training students in scientific thinking will foster a generation that can tackle pressing problems like finding viable alternative energy sources or preventing cyberattacks.

“That is why we designed UTeach with elements not always common in teacher education,” said Michael Marder, UTeach Austin’s executive director and a UT Austin physics professor. “We want teachers and their students to learn scientific and mathematical practices by following their own curiosity.”


Photo courtesy of UTeach.

UTeach grew out of the conviction that public universities have a profound role to play in improving the public education system. This year marks the 20th anniversary for UTeach at UT Austin. The program focuses on a teacher training model that provides students with opportunities to take risks, fail and recover and ultimately excel beyond the standards.

The program began in the College of Natural Sciences with the goal of preparing STEM majors to be middle and high school teachers. Since then, 45 other universities in 22 states and Washington, D.C., have developed UTeach programs, resulting in thousands of UTeach teachers. UTeach has become nationally recognized for setting the standard for STEM education in the United States.

Top Five Tips for STEM Teachers to Engage Students

We asked UTeach graduates from across the country to share their tips for STEM teachers to start the year on the right foot.

1. Get involved with edu Twitter chats.

Engaging with a network of like-minded educators for regularly scheduled social media summits is a great way to share lessons and best practices, and to think deeply in community about the big issues in your field, whether it is field-specific topics such as earth science or geometry, technology in the classroom, or issues specific to your state. Check out this schedule of Twitter education chats and jump in!

2. Encourage students to follow good science accounts on social media and directly engage with those in STEM.

Motivated students can enhance their learning and pursue their curiosity, as well as interact directly with scientists and researchers. Teachers can provide students with a list of science-related social media accounts and let them explore from there.

3. Try it yourself at least once before including the kids.

It helps you foresee struggles and ways to guide students to their own solutions. Besides, there’s nothing more awkward than messing up a model or an experiment in class and having your creativity blow up (perhaps literally) in your face.

4. Start fresh and be organized!

There are many reasons to be organized in your classroom. Not only will you not misplace student work in a sea of clutter, but organization also means smoother transitions in class. Taking a few minutes each day to get organized saves time in the long run.

5. Take risks!

There are many ways to take risks as a teacher. Taking a cross-disciplinary approach to your subject — using a cooking lesson to teach chemistry, or using music to teach mathematics — and connecting your lessons to real-world experiences can inspire students to reframe how they perceive the subject. Inquiry-based instruction allows for student choice in the classroom, which might nudge you out of your comfort zone as a teacher, but can yield greater student engagement.

More About UTeach

Nationally, UTeach has produced more than 3,200 graduates, most of whom are currently teaching in STEM fields. Teachers prepared by UTeach are leaders in their fields. UTeach not only increased the quantity, but also the quality of STEM teachers in Texas and the nation. Our projections suggest that by 2022 — when UTeach turns 25 — we will have graduated 7,700 secondary STEM teachers who will reach a projected 4 million students nationwide.

While UTeach graduates have the potential to change the world, one classroom at a time, they also do extraordinary things beyond the confines of their schools. UTeach grads have taken their students to the International Space Settlement Design competition, started popular YouTube channels dedicated to animated biology instruction, and taken the principles of UTeach to schools in China. UTeach graduates frequently win Knowles teaching fellowships and local and state teaching awards, and they lead their students to successes of their own. At UTeach, we prepare teachers. They change the world.