Carrying on Tradition, Advancing Knowledge

Author:  Ryan Norris


Maybe it was a good book on some fascinating phenomena. Perhaps it was a starry night or visit to a zoo. Perhaps, it was the chemistry teacher you had in high school. Often, those with an interest in science can point to some influencing factors or moments that triggered their pursuit of scientific knowledge. In the process, like a child having just read their first book, many scientists-in-training feel an inexplicable urge to share what they have gathered. But is it possible to take both courses, to teach and to “do” science? Or are they separate branches from the same tree, roads diverging at the point where research and education take separate paths?

Raymond Brock, a physics professor at Michigan State University who once served as chair of the school’s physics and astronomy program suggests that research and education have an intrinsic connection.

“Our best researchers also are good in the classroom,” he said. “There is a correlation that I don’t understand. If research dwindles, they aren’t the best teachers. By analogy, research propagates into teaching, makes it easier to teach. It is part of them.”

University professors have the unique opportunity to combine both research and education in one career. According to Jack Baldwin, an astrophysicist who has been a professor at Michigan State University for the past seven years, a professor’s work combines a variety of tasks.

“Normally there is a 50/50 teaching/research commitment expected,” he said. “In many cases, what one teaches is tightly connected with research work, especially the graduate level courses. Typically one has expectations to teach, research, and do service activities, such as committees and outreach.”

In many cases, it is research that leads one to seek work in the academic world. However, most professors find education to be a rich and rewarding experience. Much of Baldwin’s career has been spent outside of a university setting including a decade working for an observatory in Chile prior to his appointment at MSU. Beginning his current position with limited teaching experience , he found that teaching his first undergraduate course in astrophysics at MSU was rewarding.

“The first course I taught (at MSU) was on galaxies. I thought it was great, it refreshed my knowledge on the topic.” The survey course in astronomy he teaches for nonscientists is also satisfying. “I get to learn about parts of astronomy I normally wouldn’t be following. It’s a great excuse to learn these things.”

While courses offer professors a chance to branch beyond their specialization, when the chance to bring research into the course exists, it is often an exciting experience for instructor and student alike. “Students like that the professor is not just a teacher but does stuff and they like to hear what they do. So I always try to find ways to slip things in. Talk about quarks instead of cars in an example (for instance),” Brock said.

Becoming a university professor is long and difficult task. Graduate school is a certain requirement and in almost all cases a Ph.D. is required for a position. Those especially interested in research can also expect to spend several years completing post-doctoral work. At larger universities, such as MSU, research and teaching are complementary components of a single position. Smaller universities often have faculty devoted more to teaching with much less chance for research.

Pay for professors varies widely but increases with experience. Generally, after several years of work at a university, evaluations made by faculty and departmental directors based on performance, research output, and other factors can lead to receiving tenure, a contract with university which provides more job security and often expectations of higher pay in future.

For those who are not as interested in research but still passionate about science as well as teaching, secondary or elementary education offers many opportunities. The need for teachers with a scientific background remains an issue in many school districts. According an American Physical Society, science education is one of the fastest growing needs.

While education requirements for teaching in primary and secondary school vary, a minimum Bachelors degree with in-class teaching experience is a general requirement. Moreover, if one wishes to teach in a public (and in some cases private school) teaching certification from state in which one wishes to work is a necessity. In some cases, especially within secondary education, teachers may be expected hold or pursue a Masters degree after teaching for several years. Income for teachers will also vary according to district, whether the school is public or private, and experience. The Occupational Outlook Handbook reports that starting pay for educators in 2003-2004 averaged at $31,704 for those with a bachelor’s degree. The top 10% of all educators ranges from $66,240-71,370.

Michele Barry is a student at MSU majoring in physical science and secondary education. She initially intended pursing research, entering college with plans to major in astrophysics. After assisting an astrophysics professor during her first two years, however, she concluded that she did not enjoy research. She turned to teaching because it had long been an interest.

“I’ve always switched between wanting to be a teacher and wanting to do something else,” she said. “I love it when someone tells another about something that they didn’t know about and they get excited. It is neat to know that (teaching them) made them excited about it.”

Like many students with an interest in science, one of her main influences was science teachers. “Science came, I think, because I’ve had amazing science teachers since seventh grade,” she said. “They made me excited about science. Also, I have always been a why person. I’m not satisfied unless I know why something is working the way it is, and science seeks to answer those questions.”

Done with research, Berry is now working as a teaching assistant in the math department, one of many opportunities, including tutoring and volunteering, that an undergraduate interested in teaching can pursue to gain some experience. There are also several summer programs specifically for students interested in teaching science. Berry participated in a program called Teaching Opportunities in Physical Science (TOPS) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (

“It made me 100% sure that I wanted to be teacher,” she said of her experience at TOPS. “It made me respect science teachers more. There is so much that goes into (teaching) science.”

Regardless of level and whether research is pursued, science teachers shape the future of many fields and disciplines. Many professors, including Brock speak out about the impact that their science teachers had on their career plans. “The most important part of our scientific upbringing is (often) a high school teacher that lit something that hasn’t gone out,” he said.