Formula for improvement

Grant funds program to better math and science education

By Sherry Neaves

Day after day, Dustin sat through his high school physics class, learning nothing. His problem was not a deficient teacher, but no teacher at all. At least, no officially assigned teacher.

Substitute after substitute rotated through the classroom, all placeholders, while administrators searched for a suitable instructor.

Unfortunately, Dustin’s situation is not unique. And with new high school graduation requirements mandating four years of math and science rather than the previously required three, the demand for qualified teachers has grown. Adding to the problem, more teachers in those subject areas retire or leave the profession each year, often for more lucrative positions in industry.

“We believe that if we place college students in K-12 classrooms early, they will be captivated by teaching.”

The result is either more classrooms like Dustin’s or classes led by teachers who neither majored nor minored in their teaching field. According to the Texas Education Agency, 14.3 percent of Texas math instructors were teaching out of field in 2006, along with 28 percent of science teachers and 52.2 percent of computer science teachers.

Education and science professors at UT Arlington want to change those statistics and fill classrooms with scientists and mathematicians. They recently received a $750,000 Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program grant from the National Science Foundation to do just that.

Led by principal investigator Ann Cavallo, associate professor of science education, the program works with the Arlington, Fort Worth and Dallas school districts to certify new secondary teachers in these high-need areas. It recruits participants from UT Arlington baccalaureate programs as well as career changers from local industry.

The program will benefit education at both the secondary and college levels.

“We see a real lack of students pursuing all types of science careers here,” said Greg Hale, a co-principal investigator and science assistant dean. Other co-principal investigators are physics Professor Ramon Lopez and math Associate Professor James Epperson.

“We need to have better science teachers in schools because it all starts there,” Dr. Hale said. “This program helps us get better teachers and thus better students coming to us out of high school. Our biggest problem at the university level is that there are just not enough people interested in graduate science, math and engineering programs. High school is the place to begin building that interest.”

The Robert Noyce program aims to attract teachers who will inspire their students. Participants spend extensive time in the classroom with mentor teachers, observing and interacting with students.

“We believe that if we place college students in K-12 classrooms early, they will be captivated by teaching,” Dr. Cavallo said. “Our focus is on induction, getting new teachers into the profession, and retention, keeping them there.”

Participants, who will complete their coursework in cohorts, will receive support from one another as well as from UT Arlington professors, content mentors, mentor teachers and cohort leaders. Recently retired teachers are being sought to work with the cohorts.

The program covers the final two years for those in a baccalaureate program or one year of study for career changers with a degree. All participants will receive a $10,000 scholarship each year they are in the program. Plans call for placing 37 new, highly qualified teachers in the three participating districts by 2013.

But the Noyce initiative is only a part of UT Arlington’s quest to bolster math and science education. The Greater Texas Foundation Scholarship Program for Science and Mathematics Teachers, funded by a $150,000 grant, provides similar training and support for middle-grade (fourth through eighth) science and math teachers.

And a $350,000 grant from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board will support 25 master’s degree students from the Fort Worth, Arlington and Hurst-Euless-Bedford school districts. Those funds, for science teachers only, will cover tuition and books for all participants.

“A unique feature of that program is that it will be completed in only 15 months,” Cavallo said.

Drs. Cavallo, Lopez and Hale are working on a proposal to implement a UTeach program on campus. UTeach started at UT Austin in 1997 as a way to prepare secondary science, math and computer science teachers. Its implementation requires close collaboration between the colleges of Science and Education, something UT Arlington already has in place.

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