UF gets $1.2 million to prepare science, math teachers for state’s high-needs schools

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Some experts are challenging the widespread notion of an overall worker shortage in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math, but the paucity of schoolteachers […]

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Some experts are challenging the widespread notion of an overall worker shortage in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math, but the paucity of schoolteachers in those vital subject areas is well documented.

That’s why the University of Florida has heightened emphasis on attracting more qualified STEM majors into the teaching ranks. The latest milestone is a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation announced Monday by UF officials. The five-year funding allows UF’s College of Education to start offering major scholarship support and hands-on training opportunities this semester to recruit and prepare top science and math majors for teaching careers, mainly in Florida’s neediest middle and high schools.

UF science education instructor Griffin Jones helps UFTeach student Ibn Ali in an experiment. (UFCOE file staff photos by Larry Lansford)

The NSF Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program funds higher-education institutions to support scholarships, stipends and academic programs for STEM majors who pursue a teaching credential and commit to teaching at least two years in high-needs public school districts.

Over the next five years, UF will award Noyce scholarships worth $10,000 each to 50 undergraduate students enrolled in a program called UFTeach, which uses imaginative recruiting strategies to attract some of the university’s best students and exposes them to teaching through intensive, supervised classroom experiences in high-poverty schools. UFTeach is a joint effort of the colleges of Education and Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Enrolled students continue their science or math major while also pursuing a minor in education and most of the professional educator requirements. The scholarships will usually kick in for selected students during their senior year, when most UFTeach students serve their semester-long, full-time internship in a middle or high school science or math class.

“The senior year can be difficult for UFTeach students. The classroom-based apprentice-teaching course demands significant student time and attention. The Noyce scholarships will allow the students to focus on their apprenticeships in the classroom and ease their financial concerns,” said UF science education professor Tom Dana, the co-director of UFTeach and the principal investigator of the NSF-backed effort, which UF has dubbed the STEM EduGators program. “EduGators” is a traditional nickname for students, alumni and other stakeholders of the College of Education.

UF COE master mathematics teacher Gloria Weber assists UFTeach student Heather MacNeill in an exercise.

Another 90 UFTeach students, or 18 per year, will each receive stipends of nearly $5,000 while serving summer internships in informal science education settings such as the Florida Museum of Natural History at UF, zoos, botanical parks and nature centers. Interns must first attend an orientation and “boot camp” promoting learning in informal education settings.

“The informal teaching experience will help interns build their toolkit of ideas and teaching strengths and help them develop strategies for engaging a wide variety of learners in their classrooms,” said UFTeach associate director Dimple Flesner, the co-principal investigator of STEM EduGators. “This type of awareness and insight cannot be easily gained in the traditional settings in which teachers learn.”

Flesner said the interns also will participate in a mentored STEMS EduGator online community of students, faculty and staff to share insights, concerns and “aha moments” they experience during their summer internships.

She said the grant also pays for hiring staff, research and program evaluation, travel for interns, recruitment promotion and overhead expenses.

The NSF-Noyce scholarship program is just the latest initiative the College of Education has launched to bolster teaching and learning in the STEM subjects. The UFTeach program received a state workforce policy board’s Best Practices Award in 2011 for its role in addressing the critical shortage of math and science teachers. The newest NSF project follows on the heels of a $2 million state grant awarded to the college last October to create prototype “teacher induction” programs to support Florida science and math teachers in their first two years on the job.

An earlier NSF grant in 2011 pairs the College of Education with its K-12 laboratory school, P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, in a $5 million campaign to boost student achievement in middle schools by improving science content knowledge among practicing teachers.

“Teachers have the greatest impact on student learning. Our country’s future success in this global economy requires college graduates who are literate in science, math and technology and can drive innovation, lead scientific discoveries and become engaged, informed citizens,” Dana said. “This means providing students with a much stronger foundation in the STEM subjects beginning in middle and high school.”

Source: Tom Dana, UF College of Education, tdana@coe.ufl.edu, 352-273-4134
Source: Dimple Flesner, associate director, UFTeach, dimple@ufl.edu, 352-273-4189
Writer: Larry Lansford, news and communications, UF College of Education; llansford@coe.ufl.edu; 352-273-4147