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Teaching Science: Careers and Education Requirements

Three main factors determine what path you will take to become a science teacher: the grade level you want to teach, the subject area, and the state you live in. To teach K-12, you’ll need a bachelor’s, but for college, you will likely need a doctorate. And then there’s the maze of licensing requirements to become a teacher, all of which differ by state and subject.

To help you on your path, we’ve done the research for you. The following guide walks you through the basics of getting a science education degree so you can get started teaching.

What Does a Science Teacher Do?

Science teachers help students observe and conduct experiments on the world around them to learn how it works. Though the curriculum depends on the grade you teach, being a science teacher is always challenging. The general consensus is that good science teachers can do the following:

  • Connect with students: You’ll need to be patient and enjoy interacting with people.
  • Generate excitement: Many students are there because they have to be. Though it might be impossible to ignite a love of science in every pupil, you’ll want at least some of your enthusiasm to rub off on them.
  • Define and measure success: You’ll need to sense when students are grasping concepts, and then push them toward further understanding.
  • Make science relevant: Most students ask, “When am I going to use this?” In the case of science, they can use their knowledge every day. You will be the one to connect the curriculum to their daily lives, whether that’s spotting weather patterns or identifying how disease spreads.
  • Plan for active learning: While the jury is still out on whether people always learn better by doing, there’s little getting around it in science, where labs are built into the curriculum. Coming up with good experiments and activities requires lots of planning.
  • Get students to look deeper: A good teacher can flip science misconceptions on their head in a way that surprises and engages students. This requires you to teach the scientific method of observation, which takes students deeper than shallow assumptions.

Elementary Science Teachers

If you’re passionate about science but also interested in English or history, elementary school may be the place for you. Generally, as a K-5 teacher, you’ll be responsible for teaching all the subjects. Plus, elementary school is most kids’ first formal introduction to science, meaning you can influence how they view science down the line.

In kindergarten, students often learn what living things need to survive, the effects of pushing or pulling on objects, and how the weather changes. In first grade, they move on to studying light and sound as well as how objects move in the sky. Throughout the remaining grades they explore our natural surroundings, learn what matter is, and discover the life cycle. Throughout elementary school, a heavy focus is placed on the earth sciences (e.g., weather patterns), physics (e.g., how momentum works on a seesaw), and biology (e.g., how animals grow.) They’ll also learn about the night sky and how the earth interacts with other bodies.

Middle School Science Teachers

At the middle school level, life, physical, and earth sciences are typically lumped together into one class: science. As a middle school teacher, then, you’ll be a generalist. (Unlike in elementary school, however, you won’t be expected to teach subjects like history and English).

In a standard interdisciplinary science curriculum, you might move seamlessly from exploring the laws of physics to researching natural phenomena. In some districts, you might also teach the sex education curriculum. Here is some of the subject matter featured in certain state curricula:

  • What causes different types of weather
  • How climate change affects habitats
  • How natural selection results in biodiversity
  • How to maintain biodiversity
  • How matter changes states
  • How thermal energy moves between objects

High School Science Teachers

Most high schools split science into distinct subjects, with students taking one per grade: biology, chemistry, and physics. Schools with strong science programs might have additional classes in environmental science, which has its own AP exam.

In biology, you take students through cellular functions and genes but also heredity and natural selection. Chemistry is about getting a reaction – some of the best experiments are here – with students looking at molecular structures, acids and bases, and heat and energy. Physics is the most wide-ranging subject. You’ll explain gravitational force, electricity, magnetism, thermodynamics, and more.

College Science Teachers

The Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks seven types of postsecondary science teachers. Biological sciences have the most professors. Teachers might have a course load that ranges from marine ecology and animal behavior to neuroscience and genetics. Chemistry is the next most popular area. You might teach pre-med students organic chemistry and biochemistry. Rounding out the top three is physics.

Other popular disciplines include:

  • Agricultural sciences, which are about anything food or farm-related, from fisheries to cattle ranges
  • Atmospheric, earth, marine, and space sciences, a smattering of subjects exploring everything from weather patterns to the stars on the other side of the universe
  • Environmental science, an increasingly important field that merges other fields to look at how to manage our natural resources and provide sustainable energy for the planet’s people
  • Forestry and conservation science, which is all about managing forests and diverse ecosystems

Science Teaching Job Growth and Career Growth

The median pay for teachers, regardless of subject, increases with grade level, though not by much. In May 2018, the average elementary school teacher made $58,230, middle school teachers earned $58,600, and high school teachers commanded $60,320 annually. While projected job growth for high school teachers keeps pace with the national average of 4%, it’s 3% for lower-grade teachers.

Those figures are a bit misleading, however. States are often making do with underqualified science instructors. Physics teachers are in especially short supply.

Still, the big jump – in terms of salary and job growth – happens at the postsecondary level. On average, all postsecondary teachers pulled in $78,470 a year in 2018, and jobs are expected to grow 11% between 2018 and 2028. Science teachers are on the high end of that salary figure. In ascending order, the best-paying postsecondary teaching jobs for scientists are:

Chemistry $79,550
Environmental science $79,910
Biology $82,550
Agricultural sciences $84,640
Forestry and conservation science $86,900
Physics $90,800
Atmospheric, earth, marine, and space sciences $90,860

Science Education Degrees

The degree you will pursue will likely depend on who you want to teach science to. Here is what you need to know about pursuing post-secondary education to become a science teacher, including which level you can teach with each degree.

Bachelor Degrees in Science Education

To work with primary schoolers, you’ll likely need a degree in elementary education. If your state requires you to major in a particular area, choose science. At the high school and college levels, you’ll want a bachelor’s degree in a science subject. Middle school is somewhere in the middle, with some states requiring an elementary education major and others seeking a bachelor’s in an area of science.

Regardless, the standard bachelor’s program is four years, plus time afterward for a student-teaching program. A bachelor’s in elementary education covers not just subject matter but also teaching skills. That means students may take core work in:

  • English composition
  • Math
  • U.S. and world history
  • Life sciences
  • Physical sciences

Additional classes cover the psychology of education, how to assess student learning, classroom management, student diversity, and literacy.

If you want to teach high school, you can take your pick of science majors. But a Bachelor of Science in science education may be more appropriate, allowing you to concentrate in one area while getting enough of an overview to teach multiple science courses. Some degrees also target potential elementary and middle school teachers.

If you’re looking to teach at the postsecondary level, you can major in your area of interest. As you drill deeper into your subject with a master’s and, later, Ph.D., you can become qualified to teach granular courses within your area.

Master’s Degree in Science

According to 2013 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, K-12 teachers with master’s degrees earned much more, on average, than those with a bachelor’s. The median averages are below:

Bachelor’s Master’s
Elementary and middle school $42,100 $54,000
Secondary school $45,000 $56,000

Unsurprisingly, more teachers earn master’s than not. Some states even make it a condition of maintaining employment (though the number of states that do is shrinking). The stats don’t specify which type of master’s, though.

There are several options. While you could simply get a degree in your science subject, the more common approach is to earn a Master of Education (M.Ed.) degree with a concentration in science education. An alternative is a Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.) with a science education focus, which increases the program length by adding practice hours in the classroom. M.A. and M.S. programs work too.

An M.Ed. in science education is typically intended for current teachers, so many offer online or flexible studying formats. That means the length of the program, too, is flexible. The standard for finishing a full-time 30-36 credit program is two years, give or take half a year.

Each program is targeted to teachers of specific grade levels. Since programs typically work toward advanced licensure in the state, they’re specific to state curriculums. In states that grant general science teaching credentials, for instance, you’ll learn a smattering of astronomy, geosciences, biology, chemistry, physics, and maybe even health and nutrition. That goes along with coursework to help you teach, such as advanced teaching methods, research methods, and instructional design. Other programs, especially those for high school teachers, allow for further emphasis in a particular type of science, like biology or physics.

Some programs add a capstone, thesis, or project. Those that do are typically based on a student conducting research around an educational problem and then trying to solve it.

Doctorate in Science

What type of doctorate you want to get depends on where – and how – you want to teach.

K-12 teachers don’t need a doctorate, but it would help if you want to someday become an administrator, design curriculums, or otherwise work outside the classroom. For this, consider an A href=”/programs/doctorate-in-education/”>Ed.D. or Ph.D. in science education. These 60-90 credit degrees explore how to conduct research, introduce you to classroom technology, detail general teaching methods, and, of course, dive into both actual science content and how to teach it.

This degree can also qualify you to apply for college-level teaching jobs and would be especially relevant at liberal arts colleges. If you’re dying to be at a research university, however, you may want to look at a simple Ph.D. in your given subject.

It takes about seven years for doctoral candidates in science fields to earn their degrees if they don’t already have a master’s. Such programs start with master’s-level coursework. Even with a master’s, you may still have to complete some graduate-level coursework mandated by the doctoral program.

Once you’ve covered the prerequisites, you’ll work with an advisor to propose a dissertation topic. You’ll then conduct original research with faculty help. To earn the degree, you’ll defend your methods and results.

Licensing Requirements for Science Teachers

In general, licensure requires three steps: getting a bachelor’s degree in a science subject, finishing a teacher preparation program, and passing an exam to show you know how to teach and understand your subject.

Yet the specifics get complicated. For one thing, every state is different. For another, most states provide alternative paths to get into the classroom.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, “Science teachers, like rural teachers, are often needed to teach in more than one field of science.” Therefore, in some states science teachers just need a general science certification. Other states require teachers to get separate certifications in each subject they plan on teaching, such as physics and biology. Still other states are somewhere in the middle; instead of a general science credential, they might combine chemistry and physics into a physical science certification.

Looking at two different states gives some idea of the differing requirements:

  • Maine has three endorsements at the middle school and high school level: science (5-8), life science (7-12), and physical science (7-12). To get the latter, you’d need to earn a bachelor’s degree with 24 credits in physical sciences, finish your student teaching experience, and attend a teacher education program in the state (or test out). Then you must pass Praxis I tests in reading, writing, and math, and pass PRAXIS II tests in chemistry, physics, or general science.
  • New Jersey, meanwhile, has a general science certificate for middle school and separate certifications for biological science, earth science, physical science, chemistry, and physics. To become a biology teacher, you’d need to get a bachelor’s degree with 30 credits in the discipline, pass a teacher preparation program, and score anywhere from a 134 to 155 on a Praxis test in physics, depending on your GPA.

Resources for Science Teachers