Why a Lack of STEM Teachers Could Jeopardise the Canada 2067 Vision


Nov 17, 2017

A male science teacher explaining the periodic table

Photo by PeopleImages/Getty Images

This commentary originally appeared on Canada 2067 on November 13, 2017.

There is no question that the future of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning relies heavily on a strong STEM teaching workforce. However, education systems around the world face a number of significant challenges attracting STEM teachers to the profession, preparing them sufficiently for their increasingly complex roles and, ultimately, keeping them in the teaching profession.

Shortages of qualified and effective teachers risk jeopardising the vision being set by initiatives like Canada 2067, a national initiative to shape the future of STEM learning for the 21st century and beyond. In a recent report, RAND Europe examined teacher flows in the county of Cambridgeshire in England. The study found that more teachers in the region are leaving the profession then entering it, with this finding being particularly stark for the STEM subjects. The finding reflects wider national trends in England.

However, this is not just a challenge in England. Across Canada, provincial education ministries indicate that demands for teachers are greatest in science and mathematics.

So what can be done about this? How can we ensure that we have sufficient numbers of qualified and well-prepared STEM teachers to help engage young people in STEM learning? I recently participated in a speakers' panel in England that discussed the next steps for science education and STEM skills provision. Beyond issues surrounding working conditions, the panel discussed interesting research which points to the important role of continuous professional development (CPD). Specifically, there is evidence that STEM teachers who take part in high-quality STEM-related CPD are 160 per cent more likely to stay in the profession than those who don't. This is clearly an important finding.

There are a plenty of examples happening around the world to address the support and development of STEM teachers that can provide inspiration. The European Commission works with EU countries to raise the standards of teaching through programs supporting professional development activities abroad for teachers (e.g. Erasmus+).

In Singapore, in addition to formal CPD courses, science teachers can take part in experiential learning in research laboratories locally or abroad through their “Teacher Work Attachment” program. This aims to bring back fresh perspectives to their classrooms and schools.

In Finland, the focus is on a more holistic and integrated approach to CPD. The country has witnessed an inspiring new social innovation in the field of STEM, Finland's Science Education Centre LUMA, which was designed as an ecosystem for collaboration on STEM education. It now has nine regional centres that support teachers' lifelong learning through natural interactions with the scientific community and industry from pre-service training through CPD.

One clear message from my previous research as part of the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) is that teachers want more opportunities for CPD. High quality CPD for STEM teachers not only helps in ensuring they continually develop their skills to better support students in their learning, but also helps to ensure that great teachers are kept in the system.

Initiatives like the Canada 2067 are doing great work in encouraging STEM learning among young people. However, these will only work if we have high-quality STEM teachers in place that stay in the profession. If we are to inspire the future generation of critical thinkers, innovators, entrepreneurs and informed citizens, then we need to tackle the STEM teacher shortage challenge.

Julie Belanger is a research leader at RAND Europe in the fields of education and social policy.