STEP History and Mission

The mission of the MIT Teacher Education Program, under the direction of Prof. Eric Klopfer, is twofold. First, we are working to develop a cadre of MIT undergraduates that will become the science and math teachers of tomorrow. Building upon students’ unique strengths and deep understanding of science, we believe that we can make a substantial contribution to K-12 education if not in numbers of teachers, then with the quality of teachers that we produce.

Second, we are working with in-service teachers to change their practices as we help them bring the “MIT Experience” to their classrooms via new technologies. We develop technologies and curriculum that help students and teachers delve deeper as they explore the cutting edge of math and science. Our particular emphasis is on the research, development, and implementation of new simulations and games for learning.

The Need for New Teachers and New Approaches

The foundation of the nation's educational system is in danger of crumbling. Due to the aging of current teachers, it is projected that nearly half will retire in the next five years creating an even greater shortage in an already extremely lean market. While some see this as a crisis, others view it as an opportunity, a time to bring new teachers with their new ideas and new practices into the profession.

Fortunately, undergraduates around the country are being drawn to teaching, as evidenced by the increasing number expressing interest in teaching as a career. To reach these students, however, will require innovative teacher education programs, as many of the most talented students are not in traditional educational degree programs. This is of particular concern in secondary mathematics and science classes. Currently one third of high school science teachers did not major in a science or science education. The numbers are even more staggering at the middle school level where greater than eighty percent of science teachers did not major in science or science education. Clearly we need to devise alternative pathways to reach students who have strong mathematics and science backgrounds, and provide them with creative ways to teach.

Enter the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Scheller Teacher Education Program (STEP). This program, started in 1995 by Prof. Jeanne Bamberger, has been motivated not only by the crisis in K-12 education, but also by a growing interest on the part of MIT students to meet the challenge of this crisis. There are currently more than 200 students working as volunteers in school-based programs through the MIT Public Service Center and the Office of Undergraduate Affairs' City Days Program. Their activities include: working with Cambridge School Department's Science coordinator to assist science specialists and classroom teachers in teaching science in grades K-8; developing and providing support for new curriculum; organizing science fairs, and working one-on-one with special needs students. The Teacher Education Program offers a legitimate academic option for these students, along with an opportunity to inform and develop their interests in education.

Students choose to participate in STEP for a variety of reasons. For those seeking a career in teaching (in the short or long term), STEP provides the requirements for Massachusetts State Teacher certification in mathematics and science at the middle and high school levels. Some students are preparing to teach at the college level, an area that has been traditionally (often noticeably) neglected. Others wish to apply their work to related research fields such as psychology, cognitive science, innovation in curriculum development, or educational policy-making and administration. Those going into industry find that the TEP can contribute to work in advancing educational programs, as well as work on computer-human interface and software development. More informally, the program helps students to participate more effectively in community outreach programs, and as responsible citizens, to assume a more informed role in addressing the nation's pervasive social and education problems.

The MIT Approach

Developing a Teacher Certification Program appropriate to MIT has of necessity followed MIT's home-style experimental approach to innovation. Given the undergraduate student-body, the program design needed to be consistent with the students' focus on hard core science and engineering, and also consistent with the particular qualities that we associate with MIT undergraduates-sophisticated knowledge of subject matter, high-level analytical thinking skills, abilities to confront and play with complex problems, and the enjoyment of grappling with the surprise of unexpected outcomes.

A major motivation for the program has been a belief that, given these special qualities, the STEP can develop a cadre of teachers who will be uniquely able to meet the challenges of today's schools: teachers who are competent in their field, not afraid to challenge established norms, eager and able to bridge disciplinary boundaries, teachers able to think on their feet, and who have the ability to stimulate students and others with an eagerness to question and with the ability to be innovative in their solutions to new problems.

In designing the program a responsibility to urban communities has been taken seriously. To this end, the program has been integrated into the Department of Urban Studies and Planning whose faculty plays a critical role in meeting the goals of helping students work effectively not only in classrooms, but also within the context of communities and community organizations.

In this regard the STEP faculty have recognized that, perhaps, paradoxically, the very qualities that best characterize MIT students may also present them with the greatest challenge. In particular, these students need special help in learning to value the real-world experience of a diversity of learners, the kinds of problems that form the fabric of their lives, along with their unique and effective learning styles. Indeed, it has been found that through the need to understand another's understanding, MIT students are critically examining their own learning, including the formal knowledge and the kind of thinking that they have come to take for granted. Close attention is also being paid to building effective bridges between school and work, including responsiveness to kinds of knowledge expected in workplaces in our rapidly expanding technological society.

The Maturation of the STEP

STEP now allows for certificaiton entirely at MIT. Through combination of five courses and student teaching, MIT students can receive their Massachusetts certification in one or two years. This has allowed for much greater numbers of students to participate in the MIT program. Every year nearly 30-40 students participate in the introductory courses and about a dozen go on to obtain full certification.
Simulations and Games for Learning

The research program of STEP focuses on games and simulations for learning. As a part of The Education Arcade, many of the STEP's initiatives involve the design, development, implementation and/or research on video games for learning. Much of the work focuses games for math and science in secondary schools, but new initiatives span the realm of learning games more broadly including games for learning history and foreign languages. A large initiative in mobile games is a centerpiece of STEP, as it explores new models of implementing technologies in the classroom.

The longest standing research component in STEP is StarLogo, a simulation platform that helps kids and teachers learn about simulations and fosters interest in modeling and programming. The newest iteration of StarLogo (known as StarLogo TNG) makes programming more accessible and exciting through the introduction of a graphical programming langauge and a 3D world. This version of StarLogo is now used not only to bring modeling and simulation to the classroom, but also to interest novices in programming through making games.

Linking to Educational Standards and Measuring Outcomes

As the move towards state and national standards grows, it is becoming increasingly important to tie classroom activities directly to the standards. While standards vary considerably from state to state, most call for engaging students in inquiry-based activities. In addition many recommend integrating technology into the everyday explorations of all disciplines, and some stress the importance of incorporating modeling and simulation in secondary school courses. In particular, science, mathematics and social studies standards explicitly address the need for student use and development of models.

The games and simulations designed, developed, and researched by STEP staff and students are created to stimulate interest, knowledge, understanding and inquiry, while connecting with many of the content standards that are the reality of today's classrooms.

The role of STEP does not stop at the development of new software. STEP is also involved in working with students using new technologies, constructing professional development for teachers, and researching the efficacy of these new approaches in (and out of) the classroom. This includes looking to new measures of learning that value both content and process skills.

The Future

There are many issues that the STEP must face as it takes on a larger and more important role at both MIT and in the academic world at large. The excitement generated by these challenges in both the students and faculty of the STEP serves to further highlight the potential significance of this innovative program. The STEP can and should engineer and construct a firm foundation for outstanding teacher education in the United States.