Video: Building new generation of math, science teachers

  1. Closed captioning of: Building new generation of math, science teachers

    >>> and with such fierce competition for jobs these days, there are a couple of sectors hiring and even growing. science and technology , that as we've seen in our education nation series this week, american students are far behind their global competition in science and math. there is a push to reverse the trend and it starts by training future math and science teachers. our report from our education correspondent, rehema ellis.

    >> reporter: sherry lamb is studying science and learning how to teach it.

    >> chemistry and teaching is what i really, really enjoy.

    >> reporter: this college junior is part of "you teach" a program that helps the next generation be a group of math and science teachers. you have always been interested? they're offering free courses, and do field work at public schools as early as the next semester. after four years, they graduate with a bachelor's degree and teaching certificate. it is no coincidence that the focus is on math and science .

    >> years ago, if you had a strong back you could get a job. that doesn't exist anymore.

    >> reporter: the united states will need an estimated 230,000 math and science teachers by 2015 to be competitive in years ahead.

    >> if you ask where the jobs are, it is in science and math. if you ask where they go to get that? it is great teachers.

    >> reporter: the teaching begins here at university of texas at austin , 15 years ago, and copied across the country. the math and science initiative helped to establish the program in 34 universities across 16 states. this graduate now teaches high school math.

    >> if teachers are not passionate about what they're teaching, then the students see that.

    >> when they get on the table, i just know that something funny is going to happen. makes me want to come to school.

    >> reporter: back on campus, that is just what these teachers in training hope to hear from their future students.

    >> i want to you know, show these kids that math is really important and maybe one kid will you know, take that to heart. and then you know, he will be the next albert einstein or newton.

    >> reporter: helping the students become the best science and math teachers. rehema ellis, nbc news, austin, texas.

Image: Michael Marder, center, is a physics professor at the University of Texas-Austin who leads the UTeach program
NBC News
Michael Marder, center, is a physics professor at the University of Texas-Austin who leads the UTeach program. UTeach has has been replicated at more than a dozen universities.
updated 9/27/2012 6:29:21 PM ET 2012-09-27T22:29:21

Editor's note: This story is one in a 10-part series on education solutions featured at the 2012 Education Nation summit in New York on Sept. 23-25. To learn more about these schools and how they made these solutions work, please visit for a complete “digital toolkit.”

It was the first day of class, and Chris Costello’s instructions to a group of college students in a science building at the University of Texas-Austin were evoking giggles.

“Imagine you’re a third-grader,” Costello, a teaching assistant, told the class. “What’s something that can fly?”

“Superman!” one student called out. “A bird,” said another. “A fly,” a third shouted.

Next, Costello and the course instructor, Shelly Rodriguez, handed out worksheets and brightly colored safety scissors. The students cut out and folded origami “helicopters” and set about throwing them in the air, noting how fast and in which direction they spun.

The lesson was the difference between independent and dependent variables in scientific experiments, a concept that most students in the class — which included chemistry, biology and mechanical-engineering majors — had mastered long ago. But the point was not for these college students to learn something new about variables; it was to help them decide whether they wanted to take their knowledge and pass it on.

Read more education analysis at The Hechinger Report

“As math and science people, we don’t always see ourselves as teachers, but I hope you’ll keep an open mind,” said Rodriguez, who, like Costello, is a former high school teacher.

Her pitch was the first step in a special program at the University of Texas known as UTeach, an effort to entice talented math and science majors who might otherwise become doctors or engineers to choose teaching instead. It was developed in answer to a growing crisis in American education.

For more than a decade, educators have been sounding an alarm about the dismal performance of American students in math and science. They cite grim statistics: Less than a third of eighth-graders scored proficient in science on the National Assessment of Student Progress in 2011 and slightly more than a third passed on math.

U.S. sinking in science, technology
As a result, the United States is also quickly losing its status as a world leader in science and technology, according to a landmark report published in 2005 by The National Academies, a nonprofit research group. China, South Korea and France now far outstrip the United States in the percentage of their students graduating with engineering or science degrees (as many as half compared to 15 percent in the U.S.).

This summer, the Obama administration announced plans to create a new master teaching corps in science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM studies. Educators, along with the Obama administration, are also increasingly embracing UTeach, which has spread to 34 universities in 16 states. In the 2005 National Academies report, UTeach was cited as a model that could “transform the quality of our science and mathematics teaching.” Last year, Congress passed the America COMPETES Act, which includes funding to replicate the UTeach model in other universities.

UTeach was conceived in 1998, when a group of high school teachers and professors at the University of Texas-Austin gathered to discuss what to do about the state of STEM education in local schools. Although occasionally college professors and students would visit local K-12 classrooms to teach a lesson or two, these were “not durable solutions,” recalls Michael Marder, a physics professor at the university.

“There are large (teacher) shortages” in math and science classes in high school, Marder said. “This was clearly a place where the university was well-placed to make changes.”

Mary Ann Rankin, then dean of the university’s College of Natural Sciences, invited the high school teachers to come up with their ideal program for training new math and science teachers — the kind they wished they had before entering the classroom. Professors from both the education school and from the math and science departments then tweaked that curriculum.

Fewer lectures, more student-led work
The result was a series of courses that combine practical teaching experience — before committing to the program, students must teach lessons at a real school to see if they like it — with educational, mathematical and scientific theory.

Image: Students at University of Texas-Austin
NBC News
Math and science majors at the University of Texas-Austin begin the second semester of a program training them to be high school teachers.

“We wanted to change it so they weren’t taking generic education classes, but what … you need to teach math and science,” said Mary Walker, a former high school chemistry teacher who helped design the UTeach curriculum.

Traditionally, education colleges have trained math and science teachers, in contrast to the partnership between the math, science and education faculties in the UTeach program. The curriculum is intense, but also relatively condensed, mainly because UTeach students spend more time teaching rather than observing.

Education Nation: Read more and make your voice heard

The curriculum is heavily focused on inquiry-based teaching, which means fewer lectures and more student-led group work, like the helicopter exercise, and long-term projects.

Administrators say the program has exceeded expectations. Between 2000 and 2011, 702 students graduated from the UT-Austin program (only nine students graduated in the first cohort). The total national enrollment in UTeach programs is now 5,500. And more than 80 percent of alumni are still in the classroom after five years — an impressive number considering that half of teachers nationally leave the profession in that period.

Most importantly, some evidence suggests that UTeach alumni are improving the performance of their students, administrators say.

Newcomers carefully observed
UTeach administrators observe new teachers once they enter the classroom, says Marder, who is now co-director of the program. The program has not yet published the results, though. “We’re working to gather that data,” Walker said.

Schools in Austin, where UTeach alumni make up 20 percent of math and science teachers, have seen big improvements in those subjects, however, which may have something to do with the program’s efforts.

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Manor New Tech High School, in a small town just east of Austin, offers more evidence that the program can improve student achievement. The school opened in 2007 with a math and science faculty comprised entirely of UTeach alumni. So far, the school has performed above average on state math and science tests and graduated nearly all of its students, the majority of whom qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches available to low-income students. And 100 percent of those who graduate go on to college, says the principal, Steven Zipkes.

“We have more room to be creative. I like that we’re allowed to do independent work,” said Dharma Casey, a 14-year-old freshman in a biotechnology class taught by UTeach alum Stephanie Hart. It’s a sharp contrast to her middle school experience, she added. “We did a lot of stuff out of the book last year.”

It’s UTeach’s focus on making discovery and creativity integral to the study of math and science that has drawn in many new teachers who might have gone on to more prestigious or better-paid jobs. Janice Trinidad, a teacher at Manor New Tech who has a Ph.D. in physics, says her own education was mostly lecture classes that were “very teacher centered.”

“There are some students in this school who wouldn’t have survived the way I was taught,” she said.

This story, "Education Nation: Program aims to lure next-generation engineers and math whizzes into the classroom," was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Copyright © 2013 The Hechinger Report


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