Could this be the answer to the Stem teacher shortage?

The government is offering cash incentives to maths and physics teachers to stay in the profession, but there could be a simpler, more exciting solution

Dr Lizzie Rushton and Professor Michael Reiss

teacher scientist

The recruitment and retention challenges within the science community are well documented.

Some 80 per cent of teachers report that they are considering leaving the profession, with science teachers 26 per cent more likely than any other secondary teachers to leave their school within five years.

Newly qualified teachers who have a physics or engineering degree are 87 per cent more likely to leave within that timescale.

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The government recently unveiled plans for maths and physics teachers in some parts of the North of England to receive £2,000 in a bid to staunch the flow even further.

But what if there was a different way to retain our talented scientists within the profession?

What if there was something that would make them pause for thought before departing the classroom forever?

The Institute for Research in Schools (Iris) has partnered with UCL Institute of Education to explore the experiences of research-active science teachers.

The resulting study, published last week in the International Journal of Science Education, considers whether identifying as a teacher-scientist could help.

teacher scientist

Based on in-depth interviews with science teachers who are actively participating in current research projects, the main conclusions were that teachers (from a variety of schools, research backgrounds, levels of teaching experience and specialising across science subjects) found that being research-active contributed positively to their professional identity.

The study points to the possibility that the concept of the teacher-scientist could play a role in recruitment and retention, and therefore inform future initiatives and policy direction.

Further detailed study is undoubtedly needed, but the findings of the research should make us all pause for thought.

Iris works with around 300 schools every year, supporting them in current research projects that including mapping the whipworm genome to help cure a debilitating childhood tropical disease, putting a payload into space and tackling fundamental challenges such as climate change.

Return to 'real science'

Science teachers from these participating schools were invited to take part in in-depth qualitative interviews to share their experiences, as, although research has considered the impacts of school-based science research projects on students, little attention has been paid to the benefits for teachers.

Some commented on the sense of freedom that taking part in “real science” afforded them, in contrast with the standard school curriculum.

Connecting with their roots as scientists was also a common theme, as was the importance of collaborating, opening up new networks and partnerships with scientists, researchers, Iris staff and teachers and students from other schools.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, professional development was another dominant theme, with research-active teachers noting that by participating, they were refreshing their teaching of curriculum topics and developing as teachers by playing a number of different roles throughout the research.

Many also spoke about their pride in contributing to work that benefits both students and wider society.

So how can you go about becoming a teacher-scientist? Our research suggests:

  • Regularly undertake research, grounded in the methods of science with your students, and supported by scientific research partners.

  • Continually develop your subject knowledge by discussing current, peer-reviewed research with your students, perhaps through a lunchtime journal club.

  • Enhance your practical skills and those of your students (for example, using equipment, laboratory techniques, software) through training and engagement with research scientists.

  • Provide opportunities for students, scientists, teachers and technicians to establish networks through research that can include web-based communication (webinars and email groups) and face-to-face interaction (conferences with student contributions, visits to university Stem departments, school-based seminars with visiting speakers).

  • Encourage your students to share their research at a range of levels, including school assemblies, participation in external awards and competitions, presentation and conferences and publication in magazines and peer-reviewed journals.

Dr Lizzie Rushton is a research associate at the School of Education, Communication & Society, King’s College London and Professor Michael Reiss is professor of science education at UCL Institute of Education

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