Filling the Teacher Shortage
Posted on January 31, 2023 by Thomas Becnel
The University of South Alabama was awarded a $2 million grant from the Alabama STEM Council that will make it easier for students pursuing STEM majors – those in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – to earn teacher certification and begin careers in education.
The UTeach South program will target a shortage in mathematics and science teachers with special scholarships, training and internships.
“It removes all kinds of barriers for these STEM students,” said Dr. Christopher Parrish, associate professor of mathematics education and co-director of UTeach South. “The name of the game is removing as many barriers as possible to certification.”
The UTeach Institute was founded at the University of Texas in 1997 and has expanded to more than 50 institutions in more than 20 states. The University of South Alabama is one of six state universities to receive funding over the next five years.
“Preparing our students for careers in a high-tech economy is vital – and all students across our state need access to STEM-based courses,” said Dr. Eric G. Mackey, state superintendent of education. “Expanding Alabama’s UTeach program will help put more STEM teachers in our classrooms and will be a game changer for schools that have had difficulty recruiting and retaining science and math teachers.”
Dr. Kelly Major, co-director of UTeach South and a professor of biology at the University, thinks the flexibility of the program will appeal to STEM undergraduates.
In the last five years, South has won more than $4 million in National Science Foundation grants to fund programs that allow graduates in science, technology, engineering and math to earn alternative master’s degrees that lead to teacher certification. UTeach South will allow undergraduates to do the same thing during a traditional four-year program.
“It doesn’t make our students choose between their STEM disciplines and secondary education,” Major said. “I think it’s really going to help a lot of our students. When they came to me with this idea, I was super-excited, because I once was one of these students.”
Hallmarks of the UTeach South program include collaboration among the College of Education and Professional Studies and the College of Arts and Sciences; compact programs that will allow students to earn a STEM degree and teaching certification in four years; and an array of student benefits, such as paid internships, that will offer opportunities for community outreach in education.
Elements of success, outlined in UTeach guidelines, include a distinct program identity, rigorous research-based instruction and early and intensive field experience, in addition to community support and collaboration with local school districts.
South will begin recruiting students during freshman orientation for the fall semester of 2023. By 2028, if the program meets its goals, South could quadruple its number of STEM education graduates.
Scotty Keenan, secondary curriculum supervisor for Baldwin County Public Schools, welcomes the UTeach program at the University of South Alabama. He’s hoping for a dramatic increase in young teachers trained to lead classes in mathematics.
“We’re very excited about this,” said Keenan. “Great math teachers are hard to come by. We want to allow more people to enter math education. UTeach will allow us to partner with South to recruit these students.”
Math and science teachers are critically needed in many Alabama school districts. The state has a Teacher Excellence and Accountability for Mathematics and Science program that offers a salary supplement of up to $20,000 a year for teachers. This means STEM teachers have some of the best-paying jobs in public education.
UTeach graduates aren’t required to work in education, but many do decide to become educators. Across the nation, 88 percent of UTeach graduates start work as STEM teachers.
UTeach South has its own directors, advisors and master teachers. A UTeach South student organization will encourage camaraderie, establish a presence on campus, and promote recruiting.
Parrish said he was wary, initially, about giving up local autonomy to participate in a national program. That changed after a UTeach conference he attended in Austin.
“Seeing the quality curriculum and coursework that is part of UTeach, I was sold pretty quickly,” he said. “This curriculum has kind of been crowd-sourced across the 50 universities that have implemented it, and improvements are made between semesters. It’s an excellent, cohesive and quality curriculum that we will be able to implement into these courses.”