Looking to Tech to Fill Teacher Prep Gaps

A commotion of youth-fueled energy pours into the classroom. With a quickening heartbeat and a sheen of sweat forming at her hairline, she hugs the stack of folders she’s holding in front of her tighter. The edges crinkle as the self-embrace helps steady her.

The adolescent ruckus subsides as 44 eyeballs, 22 fifth-grade minds in one room fixate on the outnumbered authority figure – a 23-year-old recent college graduate.

Years of schooling, training and certifying are behind her. At this very second, she starts fulfilling her role in guiding students to reach their greatest potential.

She draws in a breath and introduces herself while a single question repeats in her head, “Am I ready?”

This vignette isn’t an exact description of their individual experiences, but for Jamie Mikeska, Heather Howell and Carrie Straub, it still rings true. Through their own experiences, these three women are inspired to give back to a profession that has meant so much to them.

                Jamie Mikeska                                        Heather Howell                           Carrie Straub

The three former K-12 teachers are leading a joint research study by Educational Testing Service (ETS) and Mursion to examine how a virtual classroom simulator can be used to give pre-service teachers more opportunities to practice teaching science and math to upper elementary school students. They will also be exploring how to provide feedback to help pre-service teachers improve.

The 4-year study is being funded by a recent grant from the National Science Foundation as part of an initiative to strengthen the learning and teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The teaching profession has one of the highest attritions rates in the country. Each year, roughly 8 percent of teachers leave the profession before retirement.

One approach to combat this issue is to strengthen pre-service teacher skills before they enter the classroom full time. “Teachers who are well-prepared leave at more than two times lower rates than teachers who are not fully prepared,” said Linda Darling Hammond, president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute, in a recent NPR interview.

Howell, a native of Virginia, contemplated becoming a mathematician when she was younger. However, the difficulty of teaching math interested her more. “Teaching is a challenge,” Howell said. “Add the complexity of a math problem with the human part in helping someone learn how to solve it, that sounded more fun to me.”


Students come in with really different needs, ideas, access to resources. Each student is a puzzle and we educators have to figure out how to put the pieces together to serve their needs.

~ Jamie Mikeska

Like Howell, Mikeska found herself gravitating toward teaching early in life. After starting college as a chemical engineering major, she worked as an after-school science instructor in her home state of Maryland. The experience made her realize becoming a teacher was a better fit and changed her major to education.

Being able to effectively teach students with different learning abilities and behaviors is a tough hill to climb for new teachers. Straub learned this first hand as a special education teacher and director of a school for at-risk youths in Florida.

Her experiences at the school would motivate her to pursue a PhD in special education at the University of Central Florida (UCF).

I really wanted to figure out better ways for us teachers to incorporate struggling students into traditional classrooms and be successful

~ Carrie Straub

While at UCF, Straub worked as a research associate on a team creating a mixed-reality classroom simulator. The simulator places pre-service teachers from the real world in front of a screen displaying a simulated classroom and student avatars. The simulation allows for pre-service teachers to practice their skills by interacting with the student avatars who will react based on the pre-service teacher’s actions and the parameters of the simulation.

The idea originated from UCF’s College of Education faculty members Lisa Dieker and Michael Hynes who believed pre-service teachers deserved a chance to have a safe environment to practice teaching.

Blending their expertise with their colleague Charlie Hughes’ knowledge of software development, the three faculty members created TeachLivE. Hughes is a faculty member at UCF’s College of Engineering & Computer Science.

To further develop and deliver TeachLivE’s technology to the market, entrepreneurs Mark Atkinson and Arjun Nagendran licensed the technology and co-founded Mursion, a virtual reality and simulation company where Straub is now the executive director of educational programs and research.

Like Straub, Howell and Mikeska wanted to continue seeking answers to questions that keep teachers up at night. After earning PhDs, Howell in math education and Mikeska in curriculum, teaching and educational policy, both women are now research scientists in ETS’s Student and Teacher Research Center.

“Science is the pursuit of answers, and I wanted to continue that pursuit,” Mikeska said. “Instead of solving tough science problems I wanted to find answers in how best to teach students.”

Their research project focuses on providing opportunities to pre-service teachers to use a simulated classroom and practice facilitating student discussions. Discussions are widely endorsed by education professionals as an effective way to support student learning.

Facilitating effective student discussions is often a difficult skill for pre-service teachers to learn because of limited opportunities to engage in its practice during their teacher preparation.

“There’s a difference between knowing a particular subject, like algebra, and knowing how to teach algebra to a group of students,” Howell said. “Teacher prep programs may not have enough opportunities for pre-service teachers to practice the craft of teaching math to a wide array of students, so I’m looking forward to see if a simulation tool can fill in that gap.”

The simulated classroom tool could also benefit teacher educators. As pre-service teachers practice facilitating discussions on math and science content, teacher educators can give real-time feedback on what the pre-service teacher is doing well and where they need some additional support.

All three researchers emphasized the importance of current teacher preparation approaches, like student teaching, but also its limitations. A student teacher’s field experience can vary based on the geography, socio-economic backgrounds of students, and mentor teachers they’re learning from.

Teacher preparation faculty at colleges and universities have limited control over what learning opportunities student teaching provides to their pre-service teachers. The simulated classroom is a malleable environment equipping teacher educators with the ability to modify the complexity of a simulation so their pre-service teachers can focus on certain aspects of teaching.


On the job experiences are great as far as what you learn by jumping in the pool, but what they’re not good for is giving people a chance to hold onto the side of the pool so you [teacher educators] can focus on their form while they’re kicking.

~ Heather Howell

The three researchers hope the project brings about knowledge and tools that empowers new teachers to look at those 22 fifth-grade minds with confidence knowing they’re ready.