for the Classroom
Science and math majors learn to teach
Scholarship money, meaningful mentorships and teacher certification await UTSA science and math majors interested in exploring a career in the classroom.
The College of Sciences and the College of Education and Human Development have partnered to develop GE2MS—Generating Educational Excellence in Math and Science—a program geared to train top-notch teachers in disciplines experiencing a chronic teacher shortage, from biology to chemistry, physics to math.
To entice students who may never have considered teaching, GE2MS offers three free one-hour introductory courses. Co-director Joseph Lazor says all incoming students are invited to check it out to see if teaching might be for them.
“If I set up a program and filled it with students who come to UTSA with the intent of being a math or science teacher, we’d have a program of three. That’s just not what people think about,” says Lazor, referring to the typical research orientation most science students have.
The demand for middle and high school math and science teachers is so great that 158 fewer math teachers and 119 fewer science teachers were expected to be certified locally in 2009–10 than area school districts need to replace retiring faculty or fill new positions.
Source: Education Service Center, Region 20
Formerly UTSA’s UTeach program, GE2MS is geared toward offering science and math majors a route to earning their degree in science or math and teacher certification at the same time. What’s more, the 2009–10 academic year is the first to offer fourth- through eighth-grade certification to GE2MS students in addition to high school certification, which previously was the only option, says co-director Elizabeth Pate, who also chairs the Department of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching in COEHD.
How GE2MS works
The program, which began in 2003–04, was made possible by funding from the Pat and Tom Frost Foundation. That funding continues to cover the full cost of three introductory courses and partially pays for further courses for students who remain in the program.
In the introductory courses, students gain experience in a classroom rotating through elementary, middle and high schools. During each classroom experience, students, who are mentored and provided lesson plans by the classroom teachers, teach two classes. It’s that kind of early exposure to a real class setting that makes all the difference, says Shabby Ashtiani, a junior biology major and vice president of the GE2MS student organization. “That’s when I was sold,” she says of observing and teaching a high school physics class. “I felt comfortable doing it.”
Retired high school science teacher and GE2MS instructor Judy Fowles teaches both introductory and cohort courses. Students in Fowles’ classes learn about issues of diversity and teaching problem-solving—with a focus on math and science teaching situations.
“Nobody knows how hard it is to teach,” says Fowles. “So what we want them to do is just get in and get the feel of it. They are getting the feeling of what it is to be a teacher.”
The hope, Fowles says, is that students will find the formula for success as a teacher if they combine their talent in math or science with strong people skills.
“You bring that part of your personality where you become so involved in people’s lives and you become so important to them, and you have your math and science also,” she says. “You bring them together.” College of Sciences Dean George Perry says GE2MS offers multiple benefits. “Our interest in research, our interest in training teachers—they’re all interlinked,” Perry says. “The reason we do research in a university setting is to provide educational opportunities. It’s not in a vacuum; it’s not just us increasing the knowledge base by itself.”
Improving the quality of teaching in the community means better prepared students will enroll at UTSA, he says. What’s more, students benefit from having a range of career options. “The better we can prepare students to come to UTSA ready for college-level mathematics courses, the better they succeed,” Perry says.
Perry hopes students will consider teaching a valuable experience, even if they don’t envision a long-term career.
“If you already had a job as a teacher, you’re going to be better prepared to be a university professor, you’re also going to be able to go through graduate school more focused,” he says.
“The innate curiosity and interest in science among young children often withers by the time they reach middle school. Fostering that spark with enrichment opportunities and the skills of great teachers is crucial.”
Efforts are under way to streamline certification plans so that GE2MS students can earn their degrees and certification in four years. Reducing required hours to 120 is a chief goal in a two-year plan for the program, says co-director Pate. Other goals include determining the best pedagogy and content for students; fostering a sense of identity among GE2MS students; increasing student field experiences; creating a space on campus just for GE2MS that would serve as a meeting space, community gathering spot and site for mentoring and tutoring; and establishing long-term community projects, which could then flourish and benefit the community.
“It becomes a legacy,” Pate says of such an integrated, community-minded approach.
Key to the program’s design and success is the strong cooperative spirit between both colleges, says COEHD Dean Betty Merchant.
“We realize we need to address the shortage of people in science careers and in the teaching of sciences—all around we need to have that gap closed,” Merchant says.
To that end, she says, both COS and COEHD have worked hard to figure out how to shape a certification plan that preserves necessary elements of both the discipline and the pedagogy, trying when appropriate to forge courses in an interdisciplinary vein to serve both interests.
“It’s very bold,” Merchant says of the partnership. “I do believe it will be the only one in the country that is like this, that is a genuine collaboration,” she adds.
Teaching the future
In the interest of making sure inquiry and research progress, scientists must think about the future, says Aaron Cassill, professor of biology at UTSA and director of Science Technology Engineering and Math Initiatives, of which GE2MS is a part. He says the innate curiosity and interest in science among young children often withers by the time they reach middle school. Fostering that spark with enrichment opportunities and the skills of great teachers is crucial, he says.
“We have to think of the community of scientists and understand that none of us will be around for more than 30, 40 years of productivity, and somebody has to come along and take what we found and carry it to the next level. And part of the realization is that if we don’t start with these kindergarten kids, then in 20 years there won’t be anyone there to step in and take our place,” says Cassill.
Cheryl Alderman is on the front line of such an effort. She is a UTSA graduate with a degree in mathematics and now is a third-year math teacher at San Antonio’s Clark High School. She says her field experiences in the program boosted her confidence in the classroom from her first day, something she credits for helping her earn the Mayoral and County Judge Outstanding Math Teacher Award. She also prizes the strong relationships she developed with mentor teachers, which she says has proved to be a valuable resource.
“I was able to be with really amazing teachers and learn teaching styles and tools that would enable me to be a really strong teacher in my classroom,” Alderman says. Today, Alderman serves as the math department’s academic coach and, in a turnabout, mentors students in the GE2MS program.
GE2MS offers real potential for significant impact on the community and beyond, Lazor says. “I see this as a real crusade,” he says. “This is more than putting good teachers out there. It’s unlocking the door for a lot of people.”