When you have completed a master’s degree in one branch of the life and physical sciences, you have numerous career options to pursue in industries like experimental research, industry research and development and government science roles. If you have a strong passion for academic learning, though, you might wonder if you can leverage this master’s degree to become a science teacher at an elementary or secondary school. The answer to this career question is complex. On one hand, having graduate-level knowledge of one scientific discipline will never hurt your opportunities for becoming a science teacher, but on the other hand, this degree alone isn’t enough to fully prepare you for a role as a science teacher. You will need to know the basics of other scientific disciplines as well as teaching concepts and strategies.
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Distinguishing Between Science and the Sciences
As a scientist yourself, you know how vastly different the distinct branches of science are. Through your graduate studies, you may have mastered the foundations and research methods of one of the disciplines of science – say, biology, for example – but that doesn’t mean you are an expert in physics or chemistry. Schools that allow teachers with knowledge of only one discipline of science to teach all science classes are shortchanging students and providing them with a poorer quality of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education than they deserve, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality.
For this reason, schools often require more than just one area of scientific expertise, even from candidates with a master’s degree. That doesn’t mean you will have to go back to school indefinitely to earn numerous master’s degrees in each area of science, but it does mean that you would benefit from a general science education program that covers teaching and learning in a breadth of areas of science. Having a breadth of science knowledge is more than an employer preference. In many states and school districts, you must pass a general science exam before you can receive certification as a science teacher, according to The Houston Chronicle.
In a science education program, you touch on many different areas of scientific study, such as earth science, physical science, chemistry, life science, ocean science and space science – but you study each of these subjects in the context of teaching and learning. Although most science education programs are meant to be general, some schools break the mold by offering a graduate program in a specific discipline that integrates a series of courses in teaching and learning. A Master of Science in Biology degree with an emphasis in education is an example.
Teaching Science by Grade Level
The extent to which your master’s degree in a single science discipline will help you as a teacher depends on the grade level you teach. At the elementary and middle school levels, a science teacher is often responsible for teaching all branches of science included in the curriculum, regardless of the educator’s own academic background. Without appropriate knowledge of the sciences as a whole, a science teacher who is an expert in one discipline might end up providing an uneven science education. As a science teacher with a master’s degree in biology, you might excel at teaching young students about animal classifications but fall flat, or simply fail to cover, content that fits more comfortably under a different discipline of science.
By the time students reach the high school level, the structure of teaching science has changed. In many schools, students begin to choose subject-specific science courses, like Biology I or Advanced Placement (AP) Chemistry, rather than the general grade-level-based science course. Because the classes offered at this level are more specialized and more advanced than at lower grade levels, your master’s degree in one scientific discipline may prove more valuable at this level. However, it still is important to have a strong background in general science education. Depending on the size of your school and its need for different levels and disciplines of science courses, you may be expected to take on teaching duties for science classes outside of the discipline in which you earned your master’s degree. A small school may only offer a couple of biology classes – not enough to be a full-time teacher of biology specifically.
At the youngest grade levels, a single teacher may be responsible for covering all of the curriculum standards for the major subject areas of a class. This means that, even with a background in science, you may need to teach language arts, math and history, as well.