Top Universities Will Help Train STEM Teachers

A Preschooler touches a porcupine pufferfish that her science teacher brought in. Via mtsofan on Flickr.

A group of Tier 1 research universities -- the Stanfords, Harvards and MITs of the world - will join the White House-led effort to train 100,000 new math and science teachers by the year 2022. A $22.5 million gift from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), announced by the White House Monday morning, will make it possible to expand a successful teacher-training program called UTeach to 10 top research schools over the next five years. "Historically, Tier 1 universities have not been focused on turning out teachers through their science and math departments," said Tom Luce, the founding CEO and chairman of the National Math and Science Initiative, the group that is leading the expansion effort, in an interview following Monday morning's announcement. They are focused on turning out PhD students, and they will continue to do so, he said, but the gift will help emphasize that educating new teachers is a mission that all universities "need to embrace if we're going to reach our goal."

The mission of training 100,000 new STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) teachers originates from a 2010 report by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, "Prepare and Inspire: K-12 Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) For America's Future." President Barack Obama first mentioned the goal in his 2011 State of the Union Address, saying, "over the next 10 years, with so many baby boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science and technology and engineering and math."

UTeach, which began at the University of Texas at Austin in 1997, is based on the idea espoused by many education experts that highly effective science and math teachers need deep knowledge of their subject area, plus outstanding pedagogical skills. But few U.S. STEM teachers have that combination. Only 52 percent of high school mathematics teachers and 61 percent of high school science teachers hold a major in the disciplines they teach, according to a February report from Horizon Research. In middle-schools, only 26 percent of science teachers and 23 percent of math teachers majored in their subjects.

UTeach instills both sets of skills in its students. The program is a collaboration among a university's schools of education, liberal arts and sciences and local school districts. It recruits undergraduate math and science majors to pursue teaching careers, and students graduate in four years with both a STEM major and all the courses needed for a teaching certification.

The program is also noted for its high retention rate. More than 40 percent of all teachers leave the profession during their first five years. Among STEM teachers, two-thirds of attrition comes from job dissatisfaction. But UTeach reports that 82 percent of its graduates are still in the classroom five years later. In her August 2012 feature for SA, journalist Pat Wingert wrote: "UTeach credits those high numbers to the fact that it gives students lots of time in real classrooms right from the start, so they can decide if they like teaching or not," says Mary Ann Rankin, former dean of the University of Texas at Austin's natural sciences department, who helped launch the program. "Some are seduced once they have a really fun experience and see how rewarding it can be."

The White House is now nearly half-way toward its goal of 100,000 new STEM teachers. UTeach has grown rapidly, from a presence on 20 campuses in 2010, to 35 today. The HHMI funding will allow it to reach 45 schools, training an additional 1,750 STEM teachers, for a total of 17,000. But HHMI and UTeach are only one part of the effort. The group 100kin10, a coalition of 150 organizations lead by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, has pulled together additional resources to train around 30,000 teachers, for a grand total of 47,000. President Obama has also called for an $80 million federal investment to support evidence-based STEM teacher preparation programs.

Luce's organization, the National Math and Science Initiative, posted a request for proposals from Tier One schools interested in implementing UTeach on their campuses Monday and hopes to select 10 within the next few months.

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