Laying the Foundation
The first step in preparing the next generation of scientists, engineers and astronauts is to prepare its teachers. Teachers play a critical role in encouraging children to become interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Participants sitting in a circle in a dark room with a bright light in the center

Participants at a Pre-Service Teacher Institute at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., learn how to demonstrate the phases of the moon. Image Credit: NASA

Preparing teachers for this challenge is the purpose of the NASA Pre-Service Teacher Project. The project offers opportunities for pre-service teachers to enhance their knowledge and ability to teach elementary and middle school math and science. PSTP supports NASA's goal of strengthening the agency's and the nation's future workforce.

"Science and math lay the foundation for many other subjects and assist in the development of critical thinking," said the project's director, Paula Tucker-Hogan. "The role of early childhood and elementary teachers is critical to helping children build adequate foundations for scientific study. However, prospective K-8 teachers tend to rate science, technology, engineering and mathematics as the fields in which they feel the least prepared."

The Pre-Service Teacher Project therefore helps new teachers develop an enthusiasm and confidence for teaching STEM topics. Hopefully, their enthusiasm will then carry over to their students.

Tucker-Hogan said one reason teachers feel inadequate teaching in STEM areas is that elementary and early childhood majors are not required to take a lot of math and science in college. In fact, according to Tucker-Hogan, many education majors choose to teach lower grades because of their fear of math and science. They know that for a degree in early childhood or elementary education they may need to take only one or two courses in math or science.

"Therefore, the least prepared are teaching those subjects and unwittingly communicating their fear to our children," Tucker-Hogan said. "Internationally, we are among the lowest-scoring nations in preparing our children for math and science. ... The PSTP is committed to changing this."

The project is achieving these goals through annual Pre-Service Teacher Institutes at NASA centers and an annual Pre-Service Teacher Conference. These opportunities focus on increasing the interest, knowledge and confidence of prospective teachers at the 4-8 grade levels. Both events work with student teachers and their advisors in developing new strategies for teaching an inquiry-based, integrated STEM curriculum.

NASA developed the institutes to provide more in-depth experiences for pre-service teachers and show them how to incorporate NASA's missions and cutting-edge research into lesson plans for elementary and middle school students.

Teachers also interact with NASA personnel and tour NASA facilities. The institutes culminate with the pre-service teachers developing and teaching a problem-based learning lesson to children from local schools.

Institutes are currently held at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia, Ames Research Center in California, Johnson Space Center in Texas, Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama and Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

The annual Pre-Service Teacher Conference brings together education experts, hands-on workshops and a career fair with recruiters from public schools and graduate schools from across the nation. Attendees are prospective elementary and middle school teachers from selected Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Serving Institutions, Tribal Colleges and Universities, and some other institutions.

Tucker-Hogan speaking at a lectern

Pre-Service Teacher Project Director Paula Tucker-Hogan addresses the teachers of the future at the 13th Annual Pre-Service Teacher Conference, held Feb. 14-16, 2008. Image Credit: NASA

The 13th Annual Pre-Service Teacher Conference was held Feb. 14-16, 2008, in Alexandria, Va. NASA, the National Institute of Aerospace, and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore partnered to focus the conference on "Shaping the Future: Launching New Endeavors to Inspire the Next Generation of Explorers." The conference was attended by more than 300 faculty and students representing more than 50 colleges and universities.

Attendees heard from NASA's Associate Administrator for Education, Joyce Winterton, and professor, inventor and author Calvin Mackey. Mackey is an internationally known author and speaker. He was an engineering professor at Tulane University when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

Winterton and Mackey challenged the teachers of the future to prepare to teach the next generation of leaders by becoming life-long learners. "They both reinforced the notion that education is vitally important and encouraged our students to further their education by incorporating more math and science in their curriculum," Tucker-Hogan said. "Dr. Winterton wants to ensure that our pre-service teachers are effectively preparing the next generation of explorers."

While the project certainly impacts up-and-coming teachers, Tucker-Hogan said the ultimate impact is on the children they will teach.

"The teachers will no longer unwittingly communicate a fear of math and science to their students," Tucker-Hogan said. "Their students will then develop a love for the disciplines and not be afraid to take those courses when they enter high school and college."

Related Resources
NASA Pre-Service Teacher Project   →
NASA Pre-Service Teacher Project Description
Pre-Service Teacher Institute: Langley Research Center   →
Pre-Service Teacher Institute: Marshall Space Flight Center   →
Pre-Service Teacher Institute: Stennis Space Center   →
Pre-Service Teacher Institute: Johnson Space Center   →
Pre-Service Teacher Institute: Kennedy Space Center   →
Inspiring the Next Generation of Teachers

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services