Sophomore Laura Laranjo’s long-term goal is to become a physician but she thinks a career as a high school science teacher may be a good backup plan. When the opportunity to pursue teacher certification while continuing her pre-med studies came up, she decided to give it a try. Training to be a teacher while earning a biology degree offers an alternative career path in a field she is passionate about. “It opens up an opportunity to still do something that I like,” she says.
Laranjo is among the first group of UMass Lowell students enrolled in the UTeach program, an initiative to prepare a new generation of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teachers. In December, the state awarded the University a $1.6 million grant to fund the program, part of a nationwide effort to improve STEM teacher training. In recent years, concern has been mounting about the quality of STEM education in the U.S. and students’ preparedness to compete in a technology-driven global economy. For instance, in its most recent Global Competitiveness Report, the World Economic Forum ranked the quality of math and science education in the United States 51st out of 142 countries.
The UTeach program is designed to change that. Founded at the University of Texas Austin 15 years ago, UTeach was established to attract a wide range of STEM majors to teaching careers. Central to the program are intensive classroom experience and extensive feedback and support from faculty. The program has been introduced at 29 colleges across the country, with UMass Lowell the only university in New England to offer it.
“With the shortage of science and math teachers, STEM teaching provides a stable career path,” says Interim Dean of the Graduate School of Education Anita Greenwood, who is a co-principal investigator for the UTeach grant. “It gives our students another string in their bow.”
The 27 freshmen and sophomores who signed up for the program are all math, science or engineering majors. As a first step, they will take two one-credit courses that include working with local public schools in Lowell, Lawrence and Methuen. The idea is to provide classroom experience early in the program to help the students decide if teaching is a good fit for them. If they stick with the program, they will take classes in education and research methods and will do student teaching, enabling them to earn secondary STEM teacher certification by the time they graduate.
“It’s a great opportunity for STEM majors to find out if they like teaching. If they do, it gives them more career options,” says Doug Prime, co-founder of UMass Lowell’s DesignCamp program who has been tapped as a master teacher and program coordinator for UTeach. Ultimately, the faculty hopes to create a minor in STEM education, says Prime.
Sophomore math major Corinne Clifford wants to be a high school math teacher so the opportunity to get classroom experience as an undergraduate is appealing. She likes the idea of getting her teaching certification without having to earn a master’s degree. “I’m excited about the program. It will save me time and money,” Clifford says. “And I know I’ll be getting hands-on experience.”
Prof. David Kazmer, associate dean of the Francis College of Engineering and a co-principal investigator for the UTeach grant, says schools will benefit from STEM teachers who are experts in the subjects they teach and can share their enthusiasm and knowledge with students. “High school students often aren’t aware of the opportunities that exist in pursuing a math or science degree. There’s a real need for better advising and more content expertise among teachers,” he says.
Kazmer predicts no shortage of job opportunities for teachers with STEM certification. “These STEM teachers are so much in demand. The local schools could entirely consume our output of teachers,” he says.
Cameron Carey, a sophomore biology major, wants to become a doctor but he enrolled in UTeach because he likes the idea of a fallback career path. And Carey is convinced that even if he doesn’t become a science teacher, the professional training will come in handy at some point in his career – whether he’s practicing medicine or teaching medical school. “This will be an invaluable experience,” Carey says.
The program is housed in Pasteur Hall on North Campus, in the reconfigured DesignCamp quarters. At their first class meeting, the students met the faculty, including Prof. Kenneth Levasseur, who is a co-principal investigator for the grant, and Sumudu Lewis, a master teacher with the program. They were encouraged to use the space to congregate and collaborate with each other. They also heard about paid internship opportunities with the DesignCamp program and starting making plans for their assignments at local public schools.
“We are building a community where the students can find a lot of support and where they will have the shared experience of learning to teach,” says Greenwood.