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Science Teacher and Researcher (STAR) Program: Strengthening STEM Education through Authentic Research Experiences for Preservice and Early Career Teachers

Through an innovative partnership between universities, K–12 districts, federal research agencies, and industry, the Science Teacher and Researcher (STAR) program seeks to develop a new generation of science and math teachers equipped with the skills to inspire more of our nation’s students to choose STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) career paths. Founded and implemented at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), San Luis Obispo, on behalf of the California State University (CSU) system, STAR provides research experiences along with career training and mentoring at critical early junctures in a teacher’s professional development. STAR is founded on the idea that well-prepared, effective science teachers are professionals who are well-versed in both science and education. By anchoring preservice teachers in a community of scientific research practice, they will come to better understand what it means to be a scientist and a teacher of science or mathematics.

The STEM Education and Teacher Crisis and the Goals of CSU in Preparing Science Teachers

To compete in a growing global, high-tech economy, business and industry depend increasingly on workers with special preparation in STEM fields. National and international surveys indicate, however, that too few American students have the requisite knowledge and skills in science and mathematics to participate fully in today’s economy.

This crisis is particularly acute for the state of California. National testing data from the most current Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) indicate that performance of California’s students is among the poorest in the United States in knowledge and abilities in both science and mathematics. Adding complexity is the state’s increasingly diverse population, with nearly two-thirds of K–12 students from traditional minority groups and one-quarter designated as English learners. With high dropout rates, students are not prepared enough to participate in a growing technological society or to enter the STEM workforce.

Complicating this situation is a shortage of qualified science and mathematics teachers. In California, the demand for science and mathematics teachers is far greater than current credentialing rates, particularly in the physical sciences. California will require 33,000 new science and mathematics teachers over the next ten years.

STAR Program Model

The STAR program is part of a larger CSU Math and Science Teacher Initiative (MSTI) focused on addressing these issues by developing a new generation of highly qualified science and mathematics teachers. The STAR component of this program has three main goals for addressing the crisis in science and mathematics teaching: (1) enhanced recruitment of high-quality teachers, (2) improved teacher education and professional development, and (3) improved teacher retention rates.

The STAR program seeks to achieve these goals by:

  • providing future science and math teachers with the prestige and experience of a scientific research or engineering design experience in a national laboratory
  • fostering the development of inquiry-based science teaching and learning strategies
  • supporting aspiring and early career teachers in the critical early years of their development
  • creating a sense of belonging to a larger community of scientists, teachers, and educators

Since summer 2007, the STAR program partnership in California has developed a model that integrates intensive summer research experiences with teacher preparation to create teachers who see themselves as both teachers and researchers, or as “teacher–researchers.” Ultimately, the goal of STAR is to produce more engaged science and math teachers who can better educate and inspire the next generation of K–12 students to become STEM-literate citizens, and who can propel these students into STEM careers.

Upper-division science, mathematics, and engineering majors, teaching credential students planning to teach secondary school science or mathematics, and early career science and mathematics teachers are eligible to apply for the program. Through a rigorous prequalification process that examines academic qualifications and commitment to teaching, fellows are recommended for summer research placements at partner federal laboratories and research centers.

Once placed in a research laboratory, fellows embark upon an eight- to ten-week research internship that is interspersed with weekly education seminars and workshops. Figure 1 illustrates how the STAR program affects the development of teachers through several phases (dark blue boxes), as well as affects STEM workforce and society outcomes (gray boxes). Light blue boxes illustrate the three main program goals described in more detail below.

Figure 1. Science Teacher and Researcher (STAR) Program Model


Goal 1. STAR enhances the recruitment of high-quality science, math, and engineering majors into teaching by increasing their awareness of teaching careers, enhancing the prestige of teaching as a career, and making more apparent the requirements for entry into teaching credential programs.

  • Science and math education faculty members at partner universities are important STAR program supporters, recruiters, and promoters. In addition, a specific faculty liaison, who is a science or math education faculty member from a local university, is assigned to each laboratory site for the summer. Liaisons play an important role in helping STAR fellows direct their summer research experience toward successful completion of a teacher preparation program.

Goal 2. STAR improves science teacher preparation and development by promoting a deeper and more personal understanding of the nature of scientific discovery and/or engineering design through the summer research experience.

  • STAR fellows participate side by side with research scientists and their associates on projects of highly significant scientific importance. The research–mentors play a critical role in this aspect of the program. STAR fellows also gain an appreciation for inquiry-based instructional practices as they make connections between the “doing” and “teaching” of science and math. This program is facilitated by the science education laboratory staff at the research laboratory site in collaboration with the faculty liaison and a middle or high school master teacher, who is also a teacher–researcher role model. The master teacher is a critical link in helping students transfer their emerging personal and practical knowledge about scientific discovery or engineering design to their ability to inspire students to achieve at higher levels and enter the STEM career workforce. Finally, the cohort of STAR fellows during each summer and beyond helps to reinforce the communal nature of scientific discovery, learning, and teaching.

Goal 3. STAR is also designed to improve science teacher retention rates in a number of ways.

  • One reason science teachers cite for leaving the profession is their lack of connection to the scientific community. The broader community of teacher–researchers, research–mentors, faculty members, and science education laboratory staff that has developed in this program (and will continue to expand) also plays an important role in retention. Also, by connecting science and mathematics teachers with others who have had similar experiences, they can support and learn from each other in a lifelong learning community.

STAR fellows are encouraged to participate in the program for two or three summers during these early critical years of education and development so that their research experiences, inquiry-based instructional training, and ties to the scientific community are fully developed and deeply engrained for lifelong learning along their teacher–researcher career path. Presently, approximately 20 percent of STAR participants return for a second summer of research; we anticipate that as appreciation for the benefits of STAR program experiences grow, a higher percentage of pre- and entering-service teachers will elect to participate in research for two or more summers.

STAR Program Implementation

The STAR program began with a pilot program during 2007 with the placement of sixteen STAR Fellows at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory through funding provided by the National Science Foundation (NSF). During the next two years, the program expanded in California to include eight partner research sites with thirty research placements in 2008 and thirty-nine placements in 2009. The program was open to individuals who were currently or had been affiliated with a CSU undergraduate, graduate, or credential program. During 2008 and 2009, the program was funded primarily by the Stephen Bechtel Fund, with matching funds from the Fluor Corporation Foundation, the NSF Noyce Scholars Program, Cal Poly, and the California State University System.

Through funding provided by the NSF Noyce Scholars Program, the 2010 STAR Program has expanded to involve fifty-nine STAR Fellows at eleven sites in California and twelve STAR Fellows placed in four additional states (Colorado, Maryland, Tennessee, and Washington) as part of a national pilot expansion. In addition to CSU affiliates, the summer 2010 program is open to all current and former NSF Noyce Scholars at universities within proximity of the five states currently involved in the program. Statewide recruitment and coordination efforts have been facilitated by the following anchor university partners: University of Colorado, Boulder; Towson University; Middle Tennessee State University; and Western Washington University.

Of the 156 STAR placements that have been arranged between 2007–2010, the program has involved students from all but two of the twenty-three CSU campuses, and has involved fifty Noyce Scholars. The majority of these participants have been undergraduate preservice teachers (50 percent) and credential students (34 percent). The remaining fellows were early career teachers (11 percent) or master’s students (5 percent).

STAR Program Details

The majority of the STAR summer internship is focused on conducting authentic research with research-mentors at partner research facilities. The national laboratories and research centers are ideal STAR program partners because of their commitment to STEM education in general and to teacher professional development in particular, their highly developed science education and outreach infrastructures, and their cutting-edge research expertise. At the end of the program, STAR fellows present research posters describing their work at poster sessions held at each research site.

A second essential component of the program is weekly two- to four-hour seminars addressing translation of the STAR experience into the classroom. These sessions are run by the master teacher, university faculty liaison, and lab site education representative described in the Program Model above. These workshops target four primary educational objectives—being an active member of the scientific community as a teacher, creating and managing a research learning environment in the classroom, presenting and sharing research investigations and results, and progressing through a career as a teacher–researcher.

In addition, the STAR Program involves both an opening and closing conference. Early on, the opening conference brings together all STAR fellows from across lab sites to orient students to important objectives of the program, including helping students to foster new identities as teacher–researchers. A powerful component of this conference involves presentations by former STAR fellows. At the closing conference, plans for future networking are discussed, including attendance at the upcoming science and math teacher association meetings. STAR fellows also present their summer research to each other in a poster session and provide focus-group feedback into future program improvement.

Finally, an online resource tool has been developed to help facilitate cross-lab communication and professional online networking between STAR fellows. Using the STAR Professional Online Resource Tool (STARPORT), STAR fellows and administrators are able to send e-mails and post messages, chat synchronously, and store and transfer documents, including weekly workshop materials and research posters. The STARPORT is also used as a networking platform throughout the school year following this summer program.

Effectiveness of Teacher–Researcher Model for Inservice Teachers

Previous research has shown that immersing inservice science teachers in research experiences like STAR have the following positive effects on developing teachers:

  • improved scientific skills and content knowledge (Brown and Melear 2007; Holoch, Grove, and Bretz 2007)
  • improved teacher retention (Weisbaum and Huang 2001)
  • increased teacher identity as a scientist and understanding of the nature of science (Varelas, House, and Wenzel 2005; Westerlund et al. 2002; Rahm et al. 2003;)
  • increased inquiry-based instructional practices engaging students in science (Holoch, Grove, and Bretz 2007; Melear et al. 2000)
  • establishment of a professional development mindset related to science and to teaching (Weisbaum and Huang 2001; Rahm et al. 2003)

Inservice teacher–research programs also have an effect on teacher retention. Evaluations of the Industry Initiatives for Science and Math Education (IISME) program have demonstrated that teacher participants (“fellows”) were twice as likely to remain in classroom teaching as other California teachers (Weisbaum and Huang 2001).

Studies have also shown that teachers’ participation in laboratory research experiences improves student achievement. (Industry Initiatives for Science and Mathematics Education 2007). Effective science teaching utilizes engaging inquiry-based methods that mirror those practiced by scientists in the discovery process. By anchoring teachers in an environment of real-world scientific inquiry, they come to better understand what it means to be a scientist and a teacher of science (Tobias and Baffert 2009). These teachers are better equipped to deliver a science curriculum that engages students in the real-world applications of science and enables them to see themselves as potential future scientists (Clavin and Gilmer 2008). Evaluation of Columbia University’s Summer Research Program (CUSRP) inservice teacher–researcher program showed that a sixteen-week research and professional development experience over two summers changed teacher practice toward more data-driven and research-rich learning environments, and resulted in a significant improvement in student academic performance on required high-stakes New York State Regents examinations (Silverstein et al. 2009).

Effectiveness of STAR Model for Preservice Teachers

Preservice teachers represent a distinctly different population than inservice teachers. By carefully evaluating the outcomes of STAR program experiences on preservice teachers and on their students’ academic achievement, and comparing these outcomes with those of a program for inservice teachers of demonstrated effectiveness, the STAR Program provides the opportunity to develop a comprehensive understanding of the value of preservice “teacher–researcher” teacher training.

Evaluation results indicated that STAR has been successful in attracting high-quality science majors to the teaching profession. STAR fellows represent a diversity of scientific disciplines, career development phases, CSU campuses, and ethnic backgrounds. Focusing on the most recent evaluation report from summer 2009, the STAR fellows unanimously reported that the STAR experience was valuable, with 89 percent reporting that they strongly agreed. When asked at the end of the summer about the effects of specific elements of the STAR Program, fellows reported the following:

  • Eighty-nine percent indicated that the STAR experience increased confidence in their teaching abilities.
Eighty-nine percent indicated that STAR increased their interest in teaching.
  • Eighty-nine percent indicated that STAR contributed to feeling more prestige about teaching as a profession.
  • Ninety-five percent indicated that STAR increased their desire to combine teaching and research.
  • One hundred percent indicated that the STAR experience made them feel like they were part of a broader community of teacher–researchers.

Over half of the participants stated that the relationships and interactions they made with other teachers, researchers, mentors, and peers was the most defining aspect of the STAR program. Several participants spoke quite highly about STAR fellows and affiliates. For example, one participant said the most significant part of the STAR experience was, “…being surrounded by scientists, and meeting exceptional and inspiring people.” Another participant reported that one of the best parts of the experience was “being able to meet such an amazing group of people all rooting for me to grow as a teacher–researcher.” The importance of community building and establishing relationships through the STAR program came out strongly in the post-program evaluation. Ninety-seven percent of the fellows ranked their relationships with research mentors and with each other as positive. Similarly high percentages reported positive relationships with their master teacher (94 percent) and faculty liaison (92 percent).

Self-efficacy in teaching was measured using the Science Teaching Efficacy Belief Instrument (STEBI), which assesses two types of self-efficacy: teaching efficacy, and outcome expectancy (Bleicher 2004; Riggs and Knochs 1990). The literature substantiates that higher teacher self-efficacy is positively correlated to increases in both teacher and student outcomes (Moore and Esselman 1992; Tschannen-Moran, Woolfolk Hoy, and Hoy 1998). Results comparing pre-summer and post-summer STEBI reports reveal that average efficacy belief (teaching self-efficacy) increased 5 percent and outcome expectancy (outcome teaching efficacy) increased an average of 10 percent. Both increases were statistically significant [p < .01].

Many significant changes also occurred in the STAR fellows’ beliefs about the nature of science (NOS), another important outcome assessment. The Views on Science and Education Questionnaire (VOSE) was the measure of the fellows’ beliefs about the NOS (Chen 2006). A sampling of VOSE questions that had statistically significant differences between pre- and post-program scores reveals the following changes in fellows’ beliefs about the nature of science:

  • increased belief that theories can change and do evolve to be more accurate with accumulated data
  • increased endorsement that scientists’ personal beliefs and expectations can influence observations
  • increased belief that a scientist’s intuition contributes to science
  • increased belief that scientists must invent new methods beyond the traditional definition of the scientific method. Also, increased belief that no fixed scientific method exists
  • apparent shift in priorities from teaching definitions to greater student involvement and discovery

The fellows reported that the STAR experience increased the confidence, knowledge, interest and motivation to be science/math teachers. They expressed high praise for the experience. As one fellow put it, “This was the best experience of my life.”

These preliminary results indicate that the program is meeting several of its objectives with regards to recruitment and preparation of quality science and math teachers. As the STAR program continues to grow, we can now begin tracking STAR alumni through their careers to see how the program affects teacher retention and student achievement. We have plans to conduct a longitudinal study of STAR alumni, including analysis of the performance of students of STAR fellows, to track participants through their careers and see how the program affects retention, teaching success and satisfaction. We anticipate that STAR alums may also become teacher-leaders in their schools and districts, so will evaluate this possible impact as the program continues to grow. Whatever the outcome, the data obtained will deepen our understanding of the “teacher–researcher” model and provide a sound, data-driven and experimentally validated platform for expansion of this potentially paradigm-changing approach to STEM teacher professional education and development.



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Warren Baker is the university president; John Keller is the director of the Center for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Education—both of California Polytechnic State University.

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