PROFILE: Educator Prepares High-Demand Teachers

When he first started teaching science, Piyush Swami’s students were the same age, if not a little older, than he was. The University of Cincinnati professor of teacher education was just 14 years old when he graduated from high school in Delhi, India. By the time he was 17, he had finished his undergraduate degree. His first job was teaching chemistry to high school juniors and seniors, and he was aware that his young age was going to be a challenge to leading the classroom.

“I thought, how am I going to survive this? Still, my father was a very good teacher and principal, so school leadership was not foreign to me. I just used to wonder how I was going to manage on my own.”
 He managed just fine. The class cut-ups were spoken with privately and respectfully, as Swami explained that he liked to have fun, too, but when it was time to study, the class would study. “From that point on, they respected me.”

But the teen teacher was looking for a new challenge, eventually returning to a college of education in India and finding a mentor in an American science professor, Irwin Slesnick. Swami says he and Slesnick first explored innovative science teaching techniques, and says their research resulted in a book that was published by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in India. Swami says 75,000 copies were distributed to all secondary schools in India. “But we felt that was not enough, so we looked into how to demonstrate our ideas. We soon developed a traveling demonstration about how to teach science using inquiry. This show was presented in hundreds of schools and universities throughout India.”

It was then, Swami says, that he knew he wanted to pursue science education as a specialized field, and although he wanted to learn more, India’s universities at the time did not offer that field of study on a doctoral level.

Slesnick had returned to the U.S. and within a year, Swami followed his mentor to the state of Washington and worked on his master’s degree at Western Washington University. He eventually landed in Ohio, working concurrently on a master’s degree and a doctoral degree in science education, and was awarded both degrees from The Ohio State University within a three year period.

He became a science consultant for the Ohio Department of Education and founded the Science Education Council of Ohio. Swami says the statewide professional organization now has close to 4,000 members. He says that while in the State Depatment of Education, he made contacts at the University of Cincinnati, which led him to a position at the College of Education in 1980. He has been teaching students how to teach science ever since, and is also chair of the college’s Middle Childhood Education program.

Swami is working in a high demand field as schools struggle with shortages of highly qualified science teachers. Those who have the talent and the science background are often lured away from teaching by fields that promise better salaries and other perks. But he adds that the focus on science education is taking on more importance than it has in the past 30 years. “There was a big upswing in science and math education right after the Soviets launched Sputnik in the late 50s. But that emphasis then faded in the 70s. Now, the focus is shifting toward the view that if we’re really serious about effectively teaching science in our schools, we have to provide the best materials and the best training for teachers, and we have to get administrators on the same page. And that’s beginning to happen.”

Swami adds that in Ohio, changes in certification or licensure for teachers in grades K-8 is also changing, as a result providing specialization for science teachers. This has a potential for improving quality of science instruction in early grades, when most students make important choices for their future study and profession.

“We’re now looking at the whole picture, starting with teacher preparation to licensure, to practice in the schools, to development of specific expectations for students in the schools, to accountability. The system begins to fail if any one of these is a weak link. There may be a real chance to find out where to fix the link. And that’s what I see happening in science education. I am an optimist and believed that schools would once again begin to focus on science education.”

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