Professional Development for Science



The introduction of the National Science Education Standards, (NSES) has changed the face of professional development in science.  In order to meet the professional development standards set out in NSES, all professional development in science focuses solely on improving student achievement.  In more recent years, research shows there is also a need to push teacher development in pedagogy, content, and appropriate content knowledge in the field of science education.

“When teachers have the time and opportunity to describe their own views about  learning and teaching, to conduct research on their own teaching, and to compare, contrast and revise their views they come to understand the nature of exemplary science teaching.”(NSES, 1996, p.67) 

Professional Development Standards from National Science Education Standards

Standard A:  Professional development for teachers of science requires learning essential science content through the perspectives and methods of inquiry

Standard B:  Professional development for teachers of science requires integrating knowledge of science, learning pedagogy, and students

Standard C:  Professional development for teachers of science require building understanding and ability for lifelong learning.

Standard D:  Professional development programs for teachers of science must be coherent and integrated. 

Why is Professional Development Important?

Who dares to teach must never cease to learn.  ~John Cotton Dana

The arrival of the 21st century has brought new challenges to the science classroom including diversity, scientific literacy, and accountability.  Diversity brings the need to educate an increasingly diverse student population with different histories, and cultural perspectives, experiences, and expectations.  In response to greater need for a scientific literate U.S. citizenship, The National Science Education Standards prescribes a deeper focus on, inquiry, application, collaboration, and problem solving, rather than acquisition of facts.  While these aspects of science instruction are promoted in the NSES, it has been almost a decade where we have not been able to focus on them.  Due to the federal law, No Child Left Behind, the focused accountability for the success of ALL students has been in two key areas – math and reading.

Becoming an effective science teacher is a continuous process that stretches from preservice experiences in undergraduate years to the end of the professional career for

three reasons.  First, science content is constantly changing and increasing, and a teachers understanding must keep pace. (NSES,1996) Secondly, knowledge about the process of learning is also continually developing requiring teachers to stay informed. Teachers must develop understanding of how students learn, especially students with diverse interests, abilities and experiences. Lastly, as more societal issues are scientifically based/relevant , teachers need ongoing opportunities to build their understanding and abilities. (NSES,1996) 

“Professional development creates opportunities for teachers to confront new and different ways of thinking; to participate in demonstrations of new and different ways of acting, to discuss, examine, critique, explore, argue and struggle with new ideas; to try out new approaches in different situations and get feedback on the use of new ideas, skills, tools and behaviors to reflect on the experiments and experiences of teaching science, and then to revise and try again. “ (NSES, 1996, p.67-68)

“Teachers must have experiences that engage in active learning that builds their knowledge, understanding and ability.  The vision of science and how it is learned as described in the NSES is nearly impossible to convey to students if the teachers themselves have never experienced it.  Preservice programs and professional development activities must model good science teaching.” ( NSES pg 56)  

What is Professional Development?

The writers of Designing Professional Development for Teachers of Science and Mathematics based their work on the following professional development beliefs, which are an excellent foundation for all professional development. (Loucks-Horsley, Hewson, Love, & Stiles, 1998 pgxviii)

1.  Professional development experiences must have students and their learning at their core - for ALL students.

2.  Excellent science teachers have a unique kind of knowledge that must be developed through their professional learning experiences.  This includes science content, science teaching pedagogy, and differentiation for students at different levels of understanding. 

3.  Principles that guide the reform of student learning should also guide professional learning for teachers.  Professional development opportunities must “walk the talk”.  They must include  experiences  in active learning (both minds on and hands on experiences), focus on fewer  concepts with a deeper understanding and be collaborative in nature. 

4.  The content of professional learning must come from both inside and outside the learner and from both research and practice.

Characteristics of Exemplary Science Professional Development (Loucks_Horsley, Stiles, & Hewson, 1996)

1. There is a clear, well defined image of effective teaching and learning. There are clear goals, strategies, and support over time.

2.  Emphasis on inquiry learning, problem solving, investigation and application of knowledge.

3. Teachers are provided opportunities to develop knowledge and skills (both content and teaching). This includes teachers developing understandings about student misconceptions and how to help students overcome these misconceptions.

4. Teachers work collaboratively.  This models how students should work in the classroom as well as how scientists really work.  It also provides the beginning of networking for the teachers.

5.  Assessment of progress toward achievement of goals set by the teacher.

6.  Instructional methods “mirror” the methods that will be used with students.

7.  Allows teachers to construct their own knowledge through immersion in the process.

8. Adequate and ongoing time is given for teachers to develop, practice and reflect on new knowledge and strategies.

9.  Provides follow up for reflecting and getting feedback on changes they have made, and continually analyzing and applying what they learned. 


Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s)

As part of professional development reform to transform teacher learning, PLCs are one of the recent and promising developments. The main characteristic of PLC’s is members engaging in common work or discussion to help each other focus on the specific topic of their community in order to provide a shared voice. The members develop a shared practice with shared processes, knowledge, and resources. This could include particular approaches to examining student work or revising instructional materials, or ways they assess student learning.  Being a part of the community of practice helps members build common language, methods and models around specific topics. This is where teachers can apply what they have learned in workshops, conferences and institutes. PLC’s overcome teacher isolation because they are based on collaboration, risk taking, and collegiality with other teachers and experts outside of schools. 

Good PLC’s have teachers learning content, pedagogy, strategies for formative assessment, leadership skills, and working with peers to help them put their learning into real practice.

DuFour et al. (2006) defines six characteristics of PLC’s:               

1.  Focus on learning.   - Focus and commitment to promote earning for students and teachers.

2.  Collaborative Culture Focused on Learning. 

Teams of teachers and leaders work together to learn instructional strategies to improve student learning.  They work together to deepen their knowledge, apply their knowledge in the classroom, and come together to reflect on how their actions are improving lessons and learning.

3. Collective inquiry:  Teams of teachers should focus on questions such as:  How are we doing? What do we need to learn next?  How do we get better results?  Teachers review student results and discuss what they need to do in areas where student understandings are weak.

4.  Action Oriented and Experimentation:  Teachers take immediate action on their learning.  Questions to ask after a new learning:  How does what we are learning influence our practice?  What are the applications to teaching and implications for action?  After taking action quickly teacher need to reflect on results.

5. Continuous Improvement: In PLC’s the status quo, even when results are “above average”. is not good enough.  Everyone commits to making continuous improvements and is expected to initiate and share improvements at every level. 

6.  Results Orientation:  The bottom line is results.

Mentoring and Coaching

Coaching and mentoring are powerful professional development strategies based on one to one learning opportunities focused on improved teaching.  It takes advantage of experienced teachers sharing their expertise and knowledge.  The most powerful aspect of coaching /mentoring is classroom observations.  Therefore, this type of professional development must have a foundation of trust and collegiality.  The “formal” format is usually a pre-observation meeting, observation, and post observation meeting.  In the pre-observation, the teacher chooses what aspect of their teaching they want the coach to observe. It is important that it is the teacher’s choice of what they want to improve. This can be anything from questioning techniques to classroom management techniques.  During the observation, the coach/mentor writes down only “observations” they make.  This can be “quotes from the teacher, student interactions, student behavior, etc.  After the observation, the coach shares their observations in a one to one conversation.  This conversation should take place very soon after the observation so it is fresh for both the teacher and coach.  The most effective coaching has the coach sharing their observations and is not evaluative.  Comments like “these are the questions you asked, lets place them in to “Bloom’s Taxonomy” to see what different levels were asked” not “You did a great job in your questioning”.

The teacher and the coach work together collegially with the teacher taking the lead on what next step they want to make for the skills they are working on.  The coach can certainly make suggestions based on research and their classroom experience. Coaching usually focuses on teaching skills rather than content. But in all cases, coaches need to be well trained in observation and coaching skills such as clarifying, paraphrasing, conflict management and listening.

Mentoring is a lot like coaching except it is usually between an experienced teacher and a new teacher.  Mentoring is very important to help keeping “new teachers” in the field.  Research has shown that a large percentage of teachers leave the profession in the first three years of teaching”.  Mentoring can be that “life line” to keep the new teachers in the field.  Mentoring will also include much more than classroom observation.  Every experienced teacher can remember those lessons that didn’t work or a bad day for classroom management. They need to available to listen/talk with the new teacher and help them work through what they would do differently the next time.  It is important the mentor/mentee work in close proximity and if possible teach the same discipline of science.  This allows the mentor/mentee to work informally and formally and  allows the relationship to grow.  Experienced teachers often say that “they gain as much out of the mentoring experience as the new teacher.”

Experienced teachers are often on “auto pilot” in their teaching, but coaching/mentoring experience helps experienced teachers reflect on their own teaching.

Both PLC’s and Coaching/Mentoring are professional development opportunities generally set by the school/district while action research and participation in professional organizations are more individually based professional development opportunities.


Action Research

Action research is a systematic process where teachers examine their own teaching and students learning.  Historically, professional development has been “done to” teachers.  Action research allows professional development to be “done by” teachers.  It was assumed that research relevant to teachers would be used by teachers.

Action research is based on the assumption that the more involved the teacher is, the more likelihood they will learn from the research results.  It is based on the assumption that “teachers are intelligent, inquiring individuals with important expertise and experiences that are central to the improvement of student learning.” (Pg 96 Horsley)   

The emphasis is on professional inquiry. The strength of action research is teachers define the research question giving them ownership over the process.  This ownership enhances the teachers commitment  to promoting changes in practice that are a result of their findings.  Action research can be done by collaborative teams of teachers or by an individual teacher. The knowledge and skill of actually performing research are not required and can be developed.  Requirements for effective action research are access to research resources, time, administrative support and an atmosphere conducive to experimentation, and opportunities to share their results. (Horsley pg 99)

Professional Organizations in Science

PLC’s, action research, and coaching are all very effective professional development opportunities. But where do science teachers get the most current information in both science content and researched based science teaching.  Professional organizations play this important role.  Advantages of membership in professional organizations include:

  • access to leaders in science education
  • state & national publications
  • networking at the state and national level
  • opportunity to attend and present at conferences
  • access to teacher/student awards
  • advocacy for policy and legislation related to science education


Below is a list of professional organizations for science teachers.  It does not attempt to list all professional organizations but rather describe some of the pertinent ones for Minnesota science teachers.

1. Minnesota Science Teachers Association:  This is the state association for all teachers of science.  There is an annual conference for science teachers across the state to network, learn new science teaching strategies, and stay updated with the latest information in science education in the state of Minnesota. 

2.  Minnesota Earth Science Teachers Association:

3. Minnesota Association of Environmental Educators:

4.  National Science Teachers Association:

5 .American Association of Physics Teachers 

6. National Biology Teachers Association:

7. CHEM ED  Conference

8. National Earth Science Teachers Association


Professional Development Providers in Science

In additional to state and national organizations who offer professional development through conferences, webinars, and publications, other associations or organizations also focus on PD from their own particular lens.  Some of these groups include:

Mathematics and Science Partnership

Minnesota Department of Education (MDE)  MDE provides support, training and professional development related to strandards, curriculum, instructional practices and assessment. They coordinate some statewide professional development programs.

Biological Science Curriculum Study (BSCS)

The BSCS Center for Professional Development offers a variety of professional development services to help teacher leaders and administrators understand the role of challenging curricula in developing highly qualified teachers focused on improving student achievement in science.

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources:  Project Wet and Project Learning Tree,

 Project Wet (Water Education for Teachers) is an international, interdisciplinary, water science and education program for formal and non-formal educators. Project Learning Tree:  is an environmental education program focusing on the forest as a "window on the world." as well as the land, air, and water to help students understand our complex environment.

 Science Museum of Minnesota

The Science Museum of Minnesota provides professional development programs for K-12 teachers in Minnesota. They promote scientific literacy by engaging teachers in  learning experiences that reflect the many ways that science and math are practiced and applied.

The Works Museum

The Works Museum provides professional development for teachers in grades K-6 around engineering and engineering integration. Each fall they host the E4 (Excellence in Elementary Engineering Education) Conference which provides a day long professional development in engineering pedagogy and content.


Using Technology as a Professional Development Tool

Over the last twenty years, technology has emerged as an important tool for professional development.  Technology can support any type of professional development; individual, partnered, or networked opportunities. This has been a major means of reducing “teacher isolation”.


Examples of different types of technology for professional development include:

  • skype
  • on line courses
  • on line journals
  • list serves
  • webinars
  • science and science teaching websites
  • teachers websites
  • teacher networks
  • online mentoring
  • tweetchats 


Reflection & Discussion

Teaching science requires teachers to continuously hone their teaching skills and content knowledge.  Teachers need to keep in mind are:

  • How much should a teacher change each year?
  • What kind of support do I need to improve my science instruction?
  • How will I know this professional development experience will help me to help my students be successful in science?    

In teachers’ “quest” for continuous improvement, here are several important points to remember about professional development:

  • The focus of all professional development should be “improving student achievement”
  • Professional development must “walk the talk”.  It should model what the teacher should do in the classroom.
  • Both individual and team professional development experiences are important. 
  • Teachers should have choice in what they want to improve upon.
  • Teachers MUST be given the opportunity for reflect.
  • There must be “follow up” opportunities for teachers to reflect and collaborate on “next steps”.


Action Steps

When searching for professional development opportunities, teachers should think about the different types of PD and the purpose of each, such as:


Developing Awareness

Building Knowledge

Implementing into practice

Teaching Skills














Action Research












Examining Student Work






Professional Networks













References & Resources


DuFour, R, DuFour, R, Eaker, R, & Many, T. (2006). Learning by doing: a handbook for professional learning communities at work. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.


Loucks-Horsley, S, Hewson, P, Love, N, & Stiles, K. (1998). Designing professional development for teachers of science and mathematics. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.


Loucks_Horsley,S, Stiles, K, & Hewson, P. (1996). Principles of effective professional development for mathematics and science education: a synthesis of standards. National Institute for Science Education, 1(1), Retrieved from


Mundry, S. (2009). Professional learning communities for science teaching. Arlington VA: NSTA Press.


NSTA position statement: Professional development in science education . (2006). Retrieved from


National Research Council, (1996). National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press


Professional development literature and resources. (2009). Retrieved from