The growing gap between high-tech jobs and young Americans qualified to fill them is one of the most urgent issues in present-day education. However, efforts to strengthen teaching in the STEM fields have created a second gap – this time among teachers.
Content experts without a full pedagogical toolbox find themselves burnt out, especially in high need classrooms where students might be more distracted. At the same time, teachers with great pedagogical skills are not necessarily content experts, but they find themselves teaching STEM classes when no one else is available. They are limited by their curriculum and cannot necessarily cultivate adequate curiosity among their students.
At the University of Texas-San Antonio, UTeachSA equips content experts with best practices in pedagogy and then sends them out to schools to inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers, programmers, designers, and other tech-based professionals.
The program is part of a nationwide network of 45 institutions committed to strengthening STEM education by investing in teachers.
As a collaboration between UTSA’s College of Education and Human Development and the College of Sciences, UTeachSA starts with students majoring in STEM fields. It takes those students and gives them practical exposure to teaching as early as their freshman year. If teaching appears to be a good fit, they will spend the next four years earning their STEM field degree and teaching certification simultaneously. The program currently serves 122 students.
“If we are [going to] attend to the shortage of teachers, programs like UTeach are a better investment of time and capital because of the retention rate,” College of Sciences Co-Director Oscar Chavez said.
Retention rates among new teachers are low, particularly among those with alternative certification. Those programs often do not include the practicum components that allow teachers to hone their classroom skills. Content experts are often recruited through alternative certification programs, or enter teaching through charter schools which don’t always require state certification.
For someone with a degree in a STEM field to go back to school for a teaching certificate costs time and money. At UTeachSA, they do both simultaneously.
The curriculum focuses on inquiry- and project-based learning, making graduates a unique asset to the K-12 pipeline.
“They are doing [project-based learning] here in our program as students, and we have every reason to believe they will be able to teach it,” Chavez said.
From the beginning, UTeachSA is more hands-on than the average teacher preparation course, with increased exposure to experienced educators. After the initial observations, students serve as assistants in classrooms of UTeach alumni working in the community. Master teachers also lead clinical instruction throughout the course.
Because of the critical role that the practicum elements play in UTeachSA’s success, mentor teachers who welcome students into their classroom as assistants also are paid a stipend.
Grants from the community allow UTeachSA to pursue these “mutually beneficial partnerships between teacher training in the university and P-12 [settings],” UTSA Dean of Education Margo DelliCarpini said.
One of the program's chief patrons is Frost Bank Chairman Emeritus Tom Frost Jr., who has been continuously involved in the program's development. Frost credits his friend and H-E-B Chairman Charles Butt with calling attention to the need to elevate the role of teachers in society.
"When I was growing up, a teacher was a respected person in society," Frost said, "[Now, we in the United States] just aren't paying attention to how important they are."
Frost said that the real proof of how well the program is working are the letters he receives from students telling him how passionate they are about their career in STEM education.
A partnership with CAST Tech High School will take the practicum component even further.
“It combines all the best practices we could think of,” DelliCarpini said. “It’s a dream.”
The cutting-edge facility and partnerships with tech companies at CAST Tech are an ideal environment for student teachers who are genuinely passionate about STEM fields. They will be inspired and channel that enthusiasm to the students.
While they learn in an ideal environment, graduates of UTeachSA often go on to less ideal environments. After 14 years of operation, the program has produced alumni in every Bexar County school district except Alamo Heights ISD. Many are in Title I schools. Teaching STEM in under-resourced schools is challenging, but that is the call laid out for UTeachSA.
In those Title I schools, teacher burnout is high, especially among teachers with more content expertise than pedagogical training. The learning curve in teaching is always sharp, but in challenging schools, the standard teaching techniques are not always effective. Teachers need more tools in their toolbox from the start.
“It’s a profession where you have to know all facets of the profession on Day One,” said Carey Walls, associate director of the Generating Educational Excellence in Math and Science (GE²MS) teaching program.
In addition to robust preparation, UTeachSA continues to support teachers as they move into their profession. The cohort model of the program gives them a support network of colleagues outside their school (and its internal dynamics), but in similar situations.
“They’ve developed a level of professionalism about teaching,” UTSA Math Department Chair Sandy Norman said. “[It is] as much because of the networking they do among themselves.”
The students are treated like "future colleagues" by their professors, Norman said. The faculty works with the cohort throughout the entire four years, making it less like undergraduate work and more like an internship or residency. They form a collegial atmosphere that contributes to their professional wherewithal.
Faculty members hold an elevated view of the teaching profession and the level of expertise required to develop the necessary STEM workforce, and that attitude carries over to their students.
“They’ve developed a level of seriousness about their work,” Norman said.