Indiana education leaders acknowledge the state’s teacher shortage, and the vacancies are perhaps even more acute in STEM classrooms, says Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education Teresa Lubbers. She notes that growing the number of STEM teachers is a critical stepping stone for the state to bridge the skills gap, or lack of qualified middle-skill workers, which manufacturing leaders say is a top concern for the industry. With back to school season in full swing, a newly-formed statewide STEM council is meeting for the first time this month, and filling STEM teacher vacancies is a top assignment.
“We’re looking at what to do for students to have a stronger STEM-based curriculum, but this really hinges on the preparation of our teachers,” says Lubbers. “STEM careers are increasingly necessary for a strong economy. It benefits the state and the individual; STEM wages are double general occupation wages. The average wage for all STEM occupations is more than $85,000, compared to $47,000 outside of STEM.”
While the state is on a mission to grow the number of students taking STEM classes and pursuing such careers, Lubbers says ensuring Indiana has enough teachers to support that effort is a challenge.
“Because of the STEM teacher shortage, we’ve tried to figure out what we can do to recruit more people to teach in these fields and to actually retain them,” says Lubbers. “Part of the challenge in keeping STEM teachers, many times, is that these folks can sometimes make significantly more money working at other places. We have to find a way to recruit people who really have a commitment to education.”
During the 2017 session, the Indiana General Assembly created a STEM council, supported by $2 million over a two-year period. The Commission for Higher Education, the Indiana Department of Education and other stakeholders comprise the council, which aims to build a K-12 statewide strategy to more comprehensively and equitably fund STEM education throughout the state.
“This is especially a challenge in rural areas of the state and poor urban areas, where we have a more difficult time recruiting and retaining teachers,” says Lubbers. “This is really a problem for rural Indiana, and we’ll be looking at strategies to address that.”
Lubbers believes one grant program in Indiana is evidence of progress. The STEM Teacher Recruitment Fund, a $10 million grant program created by the General Assembly to recruit more people to teach in STEM fields, is seeing an increasing number of applicants. Lubbers says 16 organizations applied during the first year, but the number grew to 25 the second year.
“I remember, many years ago when I was still in the legislature, I think we licensed eight chemistry teachers in the state in one year and two physics teachers,” says Lubbers. “I’m sure that has changed, but it shows that this is a longstanding problem.”
The Commission for Higher Education, which is responsible for financial aid distribution in Indiana, has also created a student teaching stipend for high-need areas, which include math and science for both
middle schools and high schools. Student teachers can earn a stipend of up to $5,000.
Lubbers says the state is analyzing STEM strategies at every grade level in K-12, but underscores the importance of establishing a solid foundation.
“If you don’t get a good grounding in the early grades in science and math, you’re disadvantaged going forward,” says Lubbers. “Part of the problem we have in those early grades is a lot of elementary teachers haven’t, traditionally, been strong in math. We’ve talked about perhaps needing to have math specialists in those early grades; we expect our elementary teachers to teach it all.”
She believes the state also needs to increase its accountability metrics for science, which “haven’t had as much focus.” In middle school, she believes there should be opportunities for career exploration, in addition to academic preparation, and says high school is the time to “double down.”
“We need to make sure those who are moving into the world of work have some sort of industry certification in a high-need area, or if they’re going to college, they’re prepared to go there and not need remediation—and the subject they’re most likely to need remediation in is math,” says Lubbers. “We may have different challenges at elementary, middle and high school, but we don’t have the liberty of focusing on just one of the three.”
Lubbers says, in addition to growing the number of STEM teachers preparing the pipeline, the state and employers need to focus on “skilling up” working adults.
Lubbers expects the Commission for Higher Education’s redesign of its former work-study program to increase the number of students pursuing STEM internships.