Science Teachers and the Master's Programs They Select: 
A Preliminary Study

Julie A. Luft
Martha L. Narro
Jeanne M. Slaughter
University of Arizona

     Professional development is an important part of a science teacher's career (National Research Council [NRC], 1996a). A common option for professional development during a teaching career is the attainment of a master's degree (Suter, 1993). While master's degree programs are typically composed of graduate courses and various experiences, they vary widely in their structure and title (Knapp, McNergney, Herbert, & York, 1990). For example, a science teacher can elect to participate in a subject-specific, an education-based, a field-based, or an interdisciplinary program (see Clark, Johnson, Kessler, & Schultz, 1984; Cocke, Impey, & Dunlap, 1994; Parker, Breneman, & Tunheim, 1990; Trowbridge, 1979). At the completion of a program, a science teacher may earn, to name a few, a Master of Arts, Master of Science, Master of Instruction, or Master in Education degree. Clearly, the science teacher who is looking for a master's degree program may choose from several options.

     This study was conducted to examine two types of master's programs; a subject-specific master's program and an education-based master's program. Specifically, this study identified the themes focusing on the benefits and detriments that in-service science teachers experienced within their respective programs. The information from this study also provides insight into the type of student that participates in each program, and suggests how master's programs could be better structured to meet the needs of science teachers. 

Relevant Literature

     The master's degree is the most common advanced degree that is earned among mathematics and science teachers (Suter, 1993). In 1990, the National Research Council reported that 63% of 10th - 12th grade science teachers held master's degrees. Even though there are costs and benefits with earning a master's degree (Knapp, McNergney, Herbert, & York, 1990), it is likely that teachers will continue to participate in master's programs. Turner (1990) concluded that teachers will pursue master's degrees for the on-going professional development and the need to meet state or district requirements for continued certification or advanced study.

     Even with the popularity of Master's degrees, there is little research pertaining to the development and impact of master's programs on science teachers. One study, completed by Spector (1985), qualitatively generated a model for a master's degree in science education. Based upon two years of data collection, Spector made several recommendations that pertained to the structure and course work of a master's program. She suggested, to state a few, that science teachers should have opportunities to study other areas of science, not just the discipline of their current certification (e.g. biology, chemistry, physics); participate in special courses that update science knowledge in order to participate in graduate level science courses; and understand science education as a discipline separate but related to science and education.

     There is a base of literature on in-service education in science that is relevant to the development of master's programs. Two documents, Fulfilling the Promise: Biology Education in the Nation's Schools (NRC, 1990) and the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996a), specifically address the development of in-service programs for science teachers. Both documents call for the development of in-service programs that emphasize the learning of science and education in a pedagogically appropriate environment, and preparing science teachers to be mentors and facilitators of change. Ideally, science teachers would develop an "understanding of what to teach with understanding of how to teach" (NRC, 1990, p. 70), while preparing to be leaders in the science education profession. In addition, both documents stress the importance of collaboration among science teachers, teacher educators, and scientists. As science teachers assimilate the knowledge of their in-service programs and begin to enact specific methodologies in their classrooms, they need colleagues with whom to reflect upon their own theory and practice. All members of the collaborative could support one another and learn from each other.

     Studies of the needs of in-service secondary science teachers also have direct implications for the development and impact of master's programs. Recent studies have found that secondary science teachers are interested in learning about student motivation, acquiring new teaching methods, obtaining instructional materials, using computers effectively, and updating their personal knowledge (Baird, Easterday, Rowsey, & Smith, 1993; Baird & Rowsey, 1989; Enochs, Oliver, & Wright, 1990; Germann & Barrow, 1995). In addition, secondary science teachers have expressed the importance of in-service sessions being offered at more convenient times, reduced in cost, and located in close proximity to their schools or homes (Germann & Barrow, 1995). Overall, in-service science teachers are willing to engage in professional development activities that meet their perceived needs.



The Master's Programs

     In-service science teachers in Arizona have the option of pursuing a master's degree or a specified number of professional development hours to meet the Arizona Department of Education's teacher standards. Thus, the master's programs described herein are not mandated and require that science teachers have a baccalaureate degree and teaching experience before they apply to the program.

Master of Science degree

     The Master of Science degree in General Biology was designed to serve secondary biology teachers throughout the state of Arizona. The program began in 1993 and has been revised annually based upon participants' comments and the science education literature. It is primarily a summer-based program, although some courses are scheduled in the evenings or on weekends during the school year. Teachers begin the program by taking two courses designed to update their biology background, and an integrated course on biology laboratory curricula and pedagogy that includes classroom follow-up with on-line discussion of teaching. The second summer, teachers begin a biology research project under the supervision of a science faculty member. In addition, teachers take a course to develop a lesson that transfers their new knowledge about, curricula, pedagogy, biology content, and science research into the classroom. This course also has classroom follow-up and on-line discussion components. Nine units of electives, six in the biological sciences and three in any field related to the individual's teaching, are also taken. The third year, as culminating activities, participants present a workshop to disseminate their lessons to other teachers and write a thesis on their biology research. The educational part of the program emphasizes thinking about what and how one teaches by familiarizing participants with laboratory curricula that are classroom tested prior to dissemination and pedagogical practices that are grounded in cognitive research (NRC, 1990). The science component of the program emphasizes updating teachers' biology content knowledge and providing teachers with a biology research experience on which they may draw as they develop classroom activities (NRC, 1990, 1996a, 1996b). Instructional approaches include inquiry, discussion, cooperative groups, and judicious use of lecture (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1991; Lawson 1994; NRC 1996b; Osborne, 1996). Initially, the program was designed to be completed in three years. It is a permanent degree offering within the College of Science and currently receives funding from the National Science Foundation. Participants receive summer stipends and tuition waivers for four courses.

     There are twenty-three participants in the Master of Science degree in the General Biology program, and they have an average of eight years of teaching experience. The fifteen females and eight males are secondary level instructors, with six in the middle school setting and seventeen in the high school setting. Two participants are Native American, while the reminder is Anglo-American. The participants were selected with the following criteria: a minimum of eighteen units of biological science, a GPA of 3.0 in their biology course work, evidence that they want to use more hands-on activities, evidence that they want to implement new materials and methods in their teaching, evidence of sharing materials and information with other teachers, and indications of leadership qualities.

Master of Arts degree

     The Master of Arts degree in Education with a science education emphasis, is a general program that is tailored to meet the needs of all science teachers: earth science, chemistry, biology, or general science specialists. Teachers in this program take three core courses in education; one or two courses in science education; one optional course that concentrates on the history and philosophy of science or multi-cultural education; and fifteen hours of graduate level science courses. The educational part of the program emphasizes becoming a reflective practitioner (Schön, 1983), creating an informed practice (Shulman, 1986; 1987), and examining various aspects of curricula (e.g. state/national standards, enacted curriculum), instruction (e.g. questioning, cooperative learning, inquiry), and cognition (e.g. Piaget, Vygotsky, Bruner). The science portion of the program allows teachers to work with science faculty to enhance their depth of knowledge in a specific discipline or broaden their knowledge in several areas, depending upon their own needs. The content requirements are consistent with the recommendations in the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996a). The instructors of the courses hold Ph.D.'s in Education, Science Education, and various fields of science; all are interested or active in science education. Science teachers who elect to participate in this program attend courses throughout the year, and they have the option to exit the program in a way that best demonstrates their knowledge and understanding. The exit options include a portfolio, thesis, written comprehensive exam, community service project in education, scholarly paper, or revising some aspect of university science instruction. Exit options, other than the comprehensive exam, are guided by committee and begin early in the student's program. Students in this program do not regularly receive stipends or tuition waivers.

     There are eleven participants in this Master of Arts degree in Education program, and they have an average of four years of teaching experience. The three males and eight females represent all educational levels: two elementary teachers, four middle school teachers, four high school teachers, and one school nurse who striving to improve her educational techniques with students in the informal setting. All of the participants are Anglo-American. In order to enter the program, participants are required to have a minimum of fifteen hours of educational course work and an overall GPA of 3.0. In addition, letters of recommendation and a written personal statement are reviewed by faculty in the department to determine if the program is appropriate for the participant.


     Four participants, varying in degree of completion and from different schools, were selected to be interviewed from each program. Participants from the General Biology Program were sent a letter inviting them to participate voluntarily in an evaluative study of that program with the assurance that their identity would be known only to the research assistant. Ten of the twenty-three teachers in the program volunteered to participate, and four were randomly selected for the study described in this paper. Two participants had completed the second year of the curriculum and two had completed the third year, needing only to write the thesis. Three participants were high school teachers, while one was a middle school teacher. All four participants were female.

     The department's graduate program coordinator identified participants from the education program. A research assistant and a university researcher contacted the first four participants to explain the project and inquire about their interest in participating in the study. Each participant consented to participation with the agreement of anonymity and access to the findings. The participants were also in varying degrees of completion in regard to their program: two were in their final year, one was in his second year, and one was in her first year. One male and one female were middle school teachers, and one male and one female were high school teachers.

Data Collection and Analysis

     A qualitative study was conducted as a means of exploring participants' perceptions about the benefits or detriments of their respective programs. The limited and varied population, and the types of data that would answer the research question reinforce a qualitative approach (Maxwell, 1996). Furthermore, a qualitative approach can provide an understanding of perceptions, evolve and describe salient themes, and provide a basis for further qualitative and quantitative work (Bogdan & Biklen 1992).

     To collect participants' perceptions, semi-standardized interviews were used (Berg, 1998). Berg (1998) states that this type of interview involves a number of predetermined questions presented in an order and language appropriate for people in the study. The interviewer can digress or probe beyond the predeveloped questions in order to gain a further understanding of the topic discussed. The interview questions in this study were structured to reflect the goal of the research, yet open enough to allow participants to discuss topics of importance to them (Berg, 1998; Bogdan & Biklen, 1992; Marshall & Rossman, 1989). Interviews in this study lasted one to two hours, with seven transcribed from audio tapes and one transcribed from an extensive note taking session. A research assistant and university researcher conducted all of the interviews.

     The analysis guidelines, specifically the conceptualization of the data, the coding of the data, and the development of categories in terms of properties and dimensions, were drawn from Miles and Huberman (1994). During this process, each researcher in this study independently read each interview and coded passages or phrases with simple descriptors. The researchers then met, discussed and labeled each passage. Each passage received a code that represented the consensus of the researchers. Throughout the labeling process, codes were revised and redefined as suggested by Miles and Huberman (1994).

     During the reduction of data, each researcher revealed a unique perspective concerning the two programs. The first author is a university researcher with a Ph.D. in Science Education and works extensively with science educators in the Master of Arts in Education program, the second author is a university researcher with a Ph.D. in Biology and directs the Master of Science in General Biology program, and the third author is a graduate assistant pursuing a doctoral degree in education, with an emphasis in science education. The different perspectives of the researchers and their on-going discussions about the data decreased the bias that could occur with one researcher, and contributed to the objectivity and reliability of the findings (Huberman & Miles, 1994).

     The initial inductive analysis resulted in 77 codes that represented the benefits and detriments of the two programs. Through consensus of the researchers, categories were created from the codes, then transformed into themes (Huberman & Miles, 1994) that represented participants' perceptions of each master's program. The interpretative process allowed the researchers to explore different pathways through the data (Coffey & Atkinson, 1996), while the diverse perspectives of the investigators and the varying backgrounds of the eight participants provide a basis for triangulation of the final themes (Denzin, 1978).


There are several limitations that need to be acknowledged in this study. First, the number of participants interviewed was small; thus data collected may not portray the perceptions of the actual population. Second, the study is exploratory in nature, which limits the generalizability of the study. Third, the data collected from participants was self-reported, and may not reflect actual events. Fourth, the researchers had inherent biases that may have affected collection and analysis of the data. These limitations notwithstanding, we have confidence that our findings do provide information about a topic that has not been explored.


     The original analysis resulted in 41 codes for the General Biology Program, and 36 codes for the education program. Table 1 shows the benefits or detriments that three or more participants identified about each program.

Table 1 
Most frequent responses about the benefits and detriments of Masterís programs 
Master of Science in General Biology  (n = 4)
Master of Arts in Education- 
Science Education  (n=4) 
Benefits Detriments Benefits Detriments
Collaboration with peers  Intensity of Classes  Classes Available Need More Activities
Organization of the Program
Educational Research
Opportunities for Collaboration
Instructional Change
Learning New Things
Flexible Program
Not an Education Degree
Part of Professional Development
Personal Confidence
Pedagogical Content Knowledge
Professional Confidence/ Identity
Science Course work
Research Advisor
     The benefits that the general biology degree program participants anticipated included the science focus, the financial support, and an alternative to an educational degree. Participants generally expressed a negative view of courses in the College of Education. The unanticipated benefits were the interactions with peers, the relationships with supportive research advisors, and an increased level of personal and professional confidence.

     The benefits that the participants in the education degree program identified included the flexible nature of the program both in terms of time and course selection, the importance of the program to their professional development, and the financial benefits that would come from their districts. The unanticipated benefits pertained to their further understanding of educational research.

     While the resulting codes revealed the benefits of each program, they also revealed the detriments. Participants in the general biology degree program found the summer program extremely demanding upon their time, while participants in the education degree program found that there was little opportunity to work with fellow science educators.

    Master of Science in General Biology Themes

    Participants in the General Biology Program felt that their classroom instruction was different.

     The teachers described a variety of changes in their instruction. Several talked about giving students somewhat more freedom to explore their interests and make discoveries on their own (P.199-202, 213-221; M.227-229; N144-147). For some, classroom dialogue increased among students and between the teacher and students (M.57-62, 98-101, 223-234; N.153-156). For example, one teacher described learning how to ask questions to get a variety of responses so a discussion could take place, rather than just standing up and imparting information (M.57-62). Participants also reported less emphasis on memorization (N.53-60); having students do more and different activities (P.199) and implementing activities that let students do science (N.76-84, P.231-236). For example, one teacher described developing field trips with a clear purpose such as determining how aspect, slope, and elevation affect plant distribution, instead of taking students on trips just to see something and have fun, with little learning taking place as she did previously (L.78-80, 204-225).

    Participants in the General Biology Program benefited from interactions with their peers and university scientists.

     All participants felt that talking and sharing ideas with the other teachers in the program was beneficial (L.24-28; M.236-238; N.85-87; P.83-93, 166-170). One person described it as sharing ideas with "teachers who want to do great things in their classrooms" (L.27-28). In addition, most participants benefited from their university contacts, especially noting the mentoring they received from supportive research advisors (M.49-52, 90-94; N.288-292; P.104-107, 302-309).

    Participants in the General Biology Program felt an increased confidence personally and professionally.

     Participants' personal confidence increased as a result of mastering difficult science concepts as well as sophisticated laboratory protocols and equipment in both course work and the research laboratory (P.272-279; L.59-69, 74-77, 232-236; M.130-137; N.113-132). For example, one participant described her experience in a laboratory course that was taught at a high level. She had to work hard to understand, but demonstrated to herself that she could master the material and sophisticated procedures (P.133-139, 145-149). Some participants also gained personal confidence from "being a scientist" (P.107-114, L.59). Ultimately the gain in personal confidence increased participants' professional confidence about teaching science concepts (L.59-69, 232-236), reducing content coverage (M.75-80), developing curriculum for the science classroom (L.109-115), interacting with their school colleagues about instructional matters (L.236-242, M.124-137), and attending or participating in professional meetings (N.133-139, P.81-94). For example, one participant felt she now was able to teach DNA and biotechnology concepts at a high level because her students not only understood the concepts and enjoyed the lesson, but complemented her on how well she knew material and taught it (L.59-69, 232-236).

    Master of Arts in Education Themes

     Participants in the education program valued the educational emphasis.

     The participants of the education program valued reading and scrutinizing educational research articles and the modeling of effective instruction (3.121-125; 1.250-264, 96-98; 4.73-76; 2.194-198; 4.73-76). The information that was provided, through articles or examples, was valuable to the participants as they constructed and supported their ideas about instruction and curricular change in the classroom (2.394-439; 3.250-253; 2.188-193; 4.61-68). For example, one participant found the information essential as she developed curriculum guides for her school (2.215-247), while another participant was able to redirect his instruction as he came to understand constructivist theory (3.136-146). Even though all of the participants valued the educational information they were getting, they also expressed the desire for their courses to include more research, writings, or examples that were more applicable to their own classroom teaching (1.21-27; 1.63-64; 4.124-129; 3.196-203; 2.199-205).

    Participants in the education program felt comfortable with their educational background and valued pedagogical content knowledge.

    Participants in this program were comfortable with their understanding of science content, and they attributed their comfort level to the degrees that they held in science and their previous work experience in various science fields (1.210-215; 2.48-51; 3.228-231; 4.34-37). As they sought to improve their science instruction, participants wanted to take additional courses that emphasized pedagogical content knowledge (1.45-51 3.185-203; 2.104-107; 4.193-195). They wanted, for example, to take courses that demonstrated how to facilitate learning in the high school chemistry classroom (1.45-48), and courses that would inform the teaching of middle level chemistry and biology (3.191-192; 2.106-107).


Discussion and Conclusions

     The master's programs in this study did have different benefits and detriments, and they served different populations of science teachers. Participants in the General Biology Program sought the opportunity to update and expand their science knowledge and experiences. Success in rigorous science courses and a research experience resulted in increased personal confidence. In addition, participants benefited greatly from discussions and sharing with fellow teachers, both in the curriculum course and informally. Participants expressed an increased professional confidence about teaching biology and moving into leadership roles in the teaching community. However, the summer courses and research experience were demanding and often left teachers with little or no break before the start of school.

     For the participants in the education program, this program was an important part of their on-going professional development. Teachers in this program viewed themselves as professionals who should be actively engaged in building their education and content knowledge base. The variety of courses, the times when courses were offered, and the reading and analyzing of educational research were considered beneficial to the participants. Yet, the program did not create a community of science educators that shared instructional ideas and discussed the current science education reforms.

     Even though both programs had separate and distinct qualities, they also shared some common recommended trends. First, science teachers were being prepared to be leaders in the field (NRC, 1990, 1996). The biology program enabled participants to develop a broader professional confidence that resulted in their serving on school committees, and attending and participating in local science teacher conferences. The teachers in the education-based program already considered themselves to be advocates of the profession and their participation in the program enhanced and clarified "their science education voice." Second, participants in both programs did have the opportunity to improve their understanding science in certain areas (Spector, 1985). Teachers in the biology program took two required courses to update their knowledge in biology as well as elective courses, while teachers in the education-based program continued taking graduate level science classes that were available in their subject areas. Third, participants were able to update their personal knowledge pertaining to science education (Baird, Easterday, Rowsey, & Smith, 1993; Baird & Rowsey, 1989; Enochs, Oliver, & Wright, 1990). Participants in both programs updated their knowledge in different ways. Some participants learned about new instructional methods (e.g. the learning cycle, cooperative learning, open-ended inquiry), while others learned about the recommendations for practice (e.g. constructivism, the National Science Education Standards). Still other participants valued advancing their knowledge of science or educational research.

     While certain aspects of teacher development were met effectively, this study identifies areas each program needs to strengthen. The biology program needs to provide teachers with more opportunities to study science education research so they may better appreciate its importance, while the education-based master's could have provided more opportunities to experience content in an inquiry setting. Courses that focus on pedagogical content knowledge would benefit both programs. For different reasons, both programs had limited opportunities for participants to study different areas of science; an important program quality specifically identified by Spector (1985). Furthermore, neither master's program fully met the teacher needs that previous studies had identified. Specifically, learning about students' motivation, training teachers to assume additional roles in science education, using the community as a resource, meeting the needs of inclusion or diverse students, obtaining instructional materials, learning to use computers effectively, and emphasizing the philosophical, historical, and social base of science (Baird, Easterday, Rowsey, & Smith, 1993; Baird & Rowsey, 1989; Enochs, Oliver, & Wright, 1990; Germann & Barrow, 1995; Spector, 1985). In addition, sessions were not always offered at convenient times (Germann & Barrow, 1995).

     Obtaining a master's degree is an important part of being a professional and we are in favor of master's degrees as part of teachers' on-going professional development. We do not feel that any one program can effectively meet the entire list of "teachers' needs" identified in the research literature. We advocate developing and studying programs with particular foci and strengths to increase the variety of quality professional development opportunities available. By sharing both short and long term information about the strengths of different programs, advisors can help teachers select the science education master's program and elective courses that best fit the individual's needs, and master's program coordinators can modify their programs to better meet the needs of in-service science teachers.

Final Comments

     Both programs have made changes based on this study. The most pressing need in the General Biology Program was to reduce the stress level of participants and make the program more survivable. The course schedule was revised to provide a longer summer break for teachers and the most demanding course, the curriculum course, was redesigned to reduce the time spent in class and the number of assignments. These changes appear to have reduced the stress level of the participants. The next focus will be on improving the pedagogical content knowledge and education research opportunities for participants.

     For the directors of the education program, a meaningful analysis revealed not only the convergence of the participants' ideas, but the inconsistencies and contradictions among all participants (Mathison, 1988). In this case, all participants provided direction to the science education program. First, it was apparent from the analysis that there needed to be more opportunities for science educators to meet with one another. As a result, a group has been formed in the College of Education that encourages networking among all science teachers. The members of this informal organization, Sci-ed-cats, participate in sharing sessions; social events, state and national science education conferences, and they facilitate state and national conferences. Second, education participants commented that they wanted more courses that emphasized learning and teaching in the science classroom. There are currently three instruction and curricula courses for graduate students in science education, with a new course pertaining to cognition and science education being offered next year. These comments, and comments by general biology participants, revealed that they knew little about the variety of courses in the program and the content within the courses. As a result, information about the courses is now disseminated each semester to program participants, schools and pre-service science teachers. Unfortunately, these comments also revealed that various science disciplines were uninformed about the program and unable to participate effectively by creating courses that are applicable to the needs of science teachers. Cross campus discussions with scientists who participate in science education has resulted in new courses and new educational opportunities for secondary teachers in chemistry, entomology, hydrology, and geology. Finally, the comments from this analysis have been shared with the graduate coordinator. During program review, he plans to share the findings with the non-science education faculty so that they may reexamine aspects of their instruction.


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About the Authors...

Julie Luft is an assistant professor of science education in the Department of Teaching and Teacher Education. She taught middle and high school science
prior to earning her Ph.D. in science education. As a science educator in the Department of Teaching and Teacher Education, she has received several
in-service and research grants, she continues to coordinate the Master of Arts degree in Education with an emphasis in science education, and she
teaches a variety of graduate and undergraduate science education courses. She has been recognized by the College of Education for her service in
science education and her mentoring of science education students.

Martha Narro is a former assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and the former head of the Graduate Studies Program in the
Master of Science in General Biology Program. While in the Department of Biochemistry, she taught graduate courses in the Master of Science in
General Biology Program and undergraduate courses to preservice biology teachers. Martha was instrumental in the development and enactment of the
Master of Science in General Biology Program. In 1996, she received the Distinguished Achievement in Science Education Award from the College of

Jeanne Slaughter is a doctoral student in the Department of Teaching and Teacher Education and her area of emphasis is science education. She has
held assistantships in the Departments of Teaching and Teacher Education and Biochemistry. She is currently involved in the general education
preservice program, in which she supervises student teachers and places practicum students.

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