Program aims to introduce scientists into the classroom

Program aims to introduce scientists into the classroom

May 12th, 2011 by Adam Crisp in News

Normal Park Upper School students react as they watch a video rollercoaster ride under the direction of Danielle Slade, left, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student who is part of a special science, technology, engineering and math teaching program. Staff Photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press

Danielle Slade and Lisa Berry could be prized resources in the education world simply because they want to teach math and science.

In a field flush with language arts, history and social studies teachers, people who want to teach science, technology, engineering and math are increasingly hard to find.

"Over the last few years, science and math teachers have been some of the hardest positions to fill," said Marvin Lott, human resources director with the Hamilton County Department of Education.

At the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, just one physics teacher graduated over the last five years. In that same time period, the university has averaged 2.4 new math teachers per year. And across all science majors, an average of just 5.8 new teachers graduated from UTC each year over the same period.

"If you look at the research, fewer people are majoring in math and science, and the ones that do are going into jobs that pay more than education," Lott said.

So UTC, armed with $1.8 million in federal money over four years, is trying to lure science and math majors into the classroom. Their program, UTeaChattanooga, recruits college students and puts them in front of youngsters for three classroom lessons per semester in elementary, middle and high school.

Master teachers guide them in creating lesson plans and classroom activities. The first two classes can be taken with no obligation to enter a teaching field, and students are even reimbursed for the tuition.

"Our programs seek to draw in people who might not think they had any interest in teaching and give them an early exposure to education," said math professor Stephen Kuhn, co-director of UTeach. He runs the program with science professor Sandy White Watson.

If the students want to continue after the initial classroom exposure, they can sign up for more UTeach education classes, then take teacher certification exams.

Unlike traditional education programs, UTeach students will earn degrees in science, technology, math or engineering and then get a concentration in education through the UTeach program.

"In addition to there being a shortage, too many math and science teachers either don't have math and science as their major or, in some of the smaller schools, they don't have the background at all," Kuhn said.

In its first year UTeach has collected 51 participants, and Kuhn thinks most of those students will teach in the classroom.

Recently, Slade and Berry, both UTC juniors, finished the middle-school portion of the UTeach program. Both women worked in medical fields before returning to college fulltime, and both had inklings they wanted to teach.

"One of the nice things about this is that they get to go into the classroom from the very beginning and see if this is really for them," said Berry, who worked in ophthalmology for 20 years.

"Unlike with regular education programs, you don't go through all your studying and then get in the classroom and think you've made a horrible mistake."

And the UTeach model extends beyond "gently exposing" them to education, Kuhn said.

"Once they graduate, we don't let them go," Kuhn said. "The first years are absolutely the hardest, so we provide follow-up and guidance and support after they are in the classroom."

The UTeach model has been effective elsewhere. More than 20 sites across the country are trying the same technique, which was perfected at the University of Texas at Austin. With a current production of about 75 graduates per year, UTeach Austin has more than doubled the number of math majors and increased the number of science majors by six, according to the Texas program's data.

The University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Middle Tennessee State University, the University of Memphis and UTC are all trying the program.

UTeaChattanooga was funded with Race to the Top funds, a federal stimulus program meant to spur educational innovation. After the four years of funding are depleted, UTC will continue to fund the program with additional grants and other funds, Kuhn said. He hopes the program pumps more science, technology, engineering and math teachers into the market within a few years.

Based on what student-teacher Slade has seen, it can't come at a better time.

"In my [first education class] at UTC, we raised our hands and only five people in a class out of 100 were math and science majors," Slade said.

In addition to beefing up their ranks in the classroom, the women think their presence can help the U.S. be more competitive in the world.

"Getting scientists in the classroom is something that is sorely needed in this country," Berry said.

"In this generation, so many of the problems they are facing is based on science. We can't put it off ... these students need this education so they can make reasonable decisions."