Program Marks 10 Years at UMass Lowell
By Katharine Webster
Whenever the chair of the Science Department at Lowell High School has an opening for a teacher, she calls up the director of UMass Lowell’s UTeach program, Assoc. Clinical Prof. Sumudu Lewis.
Lowell High has hired at least a dozen UTeach graduates as science and math teachers since the first students completed the program in 2014, and most are still there.
“I love hiring the UTeach students,” says Lowell High Science Chair Stephanie Selvaggio ’96, ’06, ’20. “They come out knowing the content extremely well and knowing how to teach right off the bat. They’ve been extremely successful here.”
UTeach, a national program based at the University of Texas at Austin, aims to improve math and science education in public schools by training college students majoring in one of the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math) to be secondary school teachers.
The program was launched on campus in January 2012 under a $1.6 million Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education grant, making UMass Lowell the first school in New England to offer it. It is now in its 10th year.
UTeach students are in middle school classrooms from their first semester and in high school classes by their junior year, if not sooner. When they graduate, they are licensed and ready to teach high school, says Lewis, who has been involved in UTeach from the start. Graduates who majored in math can also teach middle school.
“In week four of freshman year, they’re teaching their first lesson in a school,” she says. “All UTeach courses use research-based practices, and the students are taught to lead lessons through an inquiry-based approach.”
Morgan Tierno ’20, ’21, now a biology teacher in Lowell High’s Freshman Academy, says her first teaching experience at a middle school confirmed that she had found her calling.
“Until you’re in the classroom, you don’t know how it’s going to go,” Tierno says. “We were teaching a lesson to fifth-graders on erosion. Each group got a box of sand, and the students had to blow on it and pour water over it. It just felt so natural to me – I enjoyed it and I was good at it.”
Such hands-on methods are at the core of the UTeach program, in which students plan their lessons using the “5 E” model of instruction: engage, explore, explain, elaborate and evaluate. UMass Lowell provides all the equipment needed for experiments and projects.
Since the first two students finished UTeach in spring 2014, 38 have graduated and gotten their teaching licenses, while another nine will complete their student teaching this fall. Other students who start out in UTeach switch their majors to education. Still others complete a year or two of UTeach classes because they plan to teach college after getting a Ph.D., Lewis says.
Kaitlin Urban, lead biology teacher at Lowell High, says UTeach students and graduates continually improve their teaching because Lewis trains them to reflect on each lesson they try. They also bring valuable knowledge to their fellow teachers about the latest educational research and teaching techniques, including culturally responsive educational methods and social-emotional learning.
“Their ability to design a lesson and flow the lesson and have it be right with the curriculum standard is well done, and they’re always very informed about what’s new in education,” Urban says.
Ralph Saint-Louis ’19, ’20, who was hired to teach biology and chemistry at Lowell High the day after he finished his teaching practicum, is a great example, Urban says. She nominated him for Massachusetts STEM Teacher of the Year this year, and he was named one of five finalists.
Saint-Louis, a first-generation college graduate, says UTeach gave him the tools and the support he needed to succeed – and to help his students succeed, too.
“Every day I think, ‘How can I relate what I’m teaching to my students’ life experience and what they are learning and thinking about every day outside of the science context?’” he says.
“Education was upward mobility for me. ... It was always my teachers who gave me those resources and pushed me, and if I can do that for one student, I know it will be better for that student in the future and better for the community.”
Saint-Louis just completed a year as a Massachusetts Education Policy Fellow, learning about how curriculum standards and school policies are developed and working on projects to benefit Lowell High School. He and fellow UTeach graduate Thomas Heywosz ’18, ’19 both serve on leadership teams at the high school, despite their junior status.
And, after earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in their STEM specialties – Saint-Louis in biology and Heywosz in math – both are pursuing further graduate studies in educational leadership.
Both are also circling back to UMass Lowell to help students and faculty in the School of Education – as is Tierno, who mentored a UTeach student last semester and helped create a virtual professional development program for biology teachers with the Tsongas Industrial History Center, a partnership between the university and Lowell National Historical Park.
Saint-Louis will serve as a mentor to a new teacher of color in the Lowell public schools as part of research into whether mentoring helps them stay in the profession, while Heywosz will mentor new UTeach undergraduates and is part of a planning committee for a math teachers’ circle started by Asst. Clinical Prof. Katherine Miller.
“We just get to sit down and do math and struggle with math … so that we can empathize with our students,” he says.
UTeach graduates are highly sought after, Lewis says. And the program’s reputation has only grown since Alexander Eden ’18, a biology teacher at Greater Lowell Technical High School, won the Exemplary New Teacher Award from the Massachusetts Association of Science Teachers in 2019.
This fall, the program will score another first when Anthony Rom ’21 becomes the first computer science graduate to complete his student-teaching practicum. Longtime Lowell High math teacher Charles Bolianites ’83, ’88 is looking forward to mentoring Rom, who taught geometry lessons to his students more than a year ago, using water wheels at the Tsongas Industrial History Center.
“The kids didn’t want him to leave – they wanted him to stay all year long,” Bolianites says. “The students from UTeach, they’re very well prepared and organized. Anything that you have to cover, they do it well. They’re all up on the tech stuff, too.
“In fact, I learn as much from them as they learn from me.”