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UA, community colleges encourage pursuit of science, math teaching careers

Published 7:28pm Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The University of Alabama’s impact on K-12 STEM education will grow over the next five years following the announcement of a $1.45 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

The Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program, a national education initiative of the NSF, seeks to encourage talented science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, majors and professionals to become middle and high school mathematics and science teachers.

Beginning Oct. 1, The University of Alabama Noyce Scholars Program will award 21 two-year scholarships ($16,000 per year) over the next five years to undergraduate and master’s level students who plan to major in chemistry, mathematics or physics and complete teacher certification.

“This is the beginning of positive reforms to be made in chemistry, mathematics and physics departments to extend more than $1 million in scholarships and support to our pre-service secondary STEM teachers,” said Dr. Dennis Sunal, professor of science education and the UA program’s director and principal investigator.

“It also will consolidate our recruitment pipeline connections to eight community colleges and provide a summer STEM orientation program for well over 100 freshmen and sophomore students.”

Sunal said the Noyce project builds upon the Alliance for Physics Excellence grant, an NSF award shared by two universities in the state and awarded in 2012. The University of Alabama oversees the research arm of the Alliance for Physics Excellence project and also works with its physics pre-service teachers.

The University of Alabama Noyce Scholars Program will mirror many components of the earlier grant, including pre-service teacher scholarships (10 two-year scholarships for UA-APEX) and research on classroom teaching in three content areas in secondary school classrooms. The Noyce project expands UA’s focus to include chemistry and mathematics teachers in addition to physics teachers.

Freshmen and sophomores at UA will have opportunities to be among roughly 120 students who will participate in paid summer internships over the next four years. During the summer, students will participate in seminars hosted by the participating UA departments and by teacher education faculty from the department of curriculum and instruction.

Students also will have opportunities to work in labs and to visit local classrooms to observe expert secondary school teaching.

“For students interested in teaching science and math, we’re saying ‘hey, we can help you, and you’re needed, dramatically, in this state,” said Sunal.

At UA, co-project investigators are Drs. Jeremy Zelkowski and Jim Gleason in mathematics education and mathematics, Cynthia Sunal in teacher education, Kevin Shaughnessy in chemistry, and J. W. Harrell in physics. The UA team will oversee activities throughout the project.

The project strongly works with community colleges and students in the early stages of their college experience to cooperatively build the pipeline for STEM teachers. Partner community colleges are Bevill State Community College, Calhoun Community College, Gadsden State Community College, Jefferson State Community College, Lawson State Community College, Wallace Community College, Shelton State Community College and Wallace State Community College.

Sharon Vincent, from Shelton State Community College, serves as co-principal investigator working with a liaison at each institution. The community college team will collaborate with UA to make their students aware of opportunities in teaching, nominate them for paid summer internships at UA in their freshman and sophomore years, and communicate with transfer students as they transition through their first semester at UA.

“Transfer students are ideal for the scholarships, as they are awarded at the beginning of the junior year,” Sunal said.

The aim of the project is to build the STEM pipeline for secondary school teachers who are a key element in providing the high quality teaching that fosters students STEM interests, said Sunal. The state has low numbers of certified physics teachers, so roughly 25 percent of secondary schools do not offer physics for lack of a certified teacher. The situation with secondary school chemistry is similar.

Mathematics teachers, particularly those who can teach advanced secondary school courses, also are in short supply. Noyce Scholars with a degree in education and chemistry, mathematics or physics when they graduate will have a job, Sunal said.

“You’ll have a job ahead of time,” Sunal said. “All of our science and mathematics teachers are in demand; more than half are signing contracts the year before they graduate.”

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