Squaring Off Against STEM Teacher Shortage

VolsTeach students Jeremy Cason Nobles (left) and Jakob Gulledge (right) shoot air canon as VolsTeach advisor, Jada Johnson (with notebook) observes.

VolsTeach students Jeremy Cason Nobles (left) and Jakob Gulledge (right) shoot air canon as VolsTeach advisor, Jada Johnson (with notebook) observes.

The need for professionals in disciplines like engineering and computer science is growing, but the lack of both trained teachers and high-quality course content in K–12 science and math classrooms could spell a bleak future for America’s ability to compete internationally in these fields in the future.

“Compartmentalization of science and math is one major problem that I see in U.S. classrooms, as is an overemphasis on content as opposed to concepts,” states Susan Riechert, a Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Riechert is the College of Arts and Sciences co-director of a new program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, that aims to improve the quality of K–12 education in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. Called VolsTeach, the program is a joint venture between the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences. Its goal is both to produce more high-quality science and math teachers in grades 7–12.

Through the program, math and science majors can receive both a degree in their major and teaching licensure within 4 years, as opposed to the 5 years typically required from other education programs. As they work toward their degree, the students will receive tuition rebates for the first two 1-credit trial courses, program advising, paid internships during the school year and summer, an apprentice teaching experience, and personal support and guidance by highly experienced former teachers serving as master teachers in the program. Students who choose employment in a Tennessee school after graduation can also receive funds for further career development, such as workshop participation.

“Starting as freshmen, students will receive personal attention from highly successful role models who are recruited to UT as master teachers, including Dr. Nita Ganguly, who was science director of Oak Ridge Schools, and Dr. Theresa Hopkins, who taught math to middle-school students in Tennessee before becoming director of the Tennessee Governor’s Academy for Mathematics and Science, a residential high school for advanced juniors and seniors from across the state,” Riechert says. Although students are encouraged to enroll in VolsTeach as freshmen, they can join at more advanced stages, as well.

Besides classes and mentoring, students will have an opportunity to participate in many field activities, such as tutoring, after-school programs, and museums. Students in the program who need supplementary funding will be paid a good hourly rate for this volunteer work under the internship program, Riechert says.

Corenthia Starks, a sophomore currently enrolled in VolsTeach, says she has had a good experience with the program, especially her fieldwork with a local 4th-grade class. Starks, who is a biological science major, plans on teaching high-school biology after graduation.

“My students are always eager to learn, and they are always willing to help other students who have problems. I have learned how to write a five-E lesson plan, and I have learned how to deal with students with diverse levels of learning,” Starks says. In the spring, she will study inquiry-based lesson design and work in a local middle school.


Tennessee teacher shortage

VolsTeach is modeled after a successful math and science teacher-training program established at the University of Texas. The University of Tennessee won a grant to replicate that program, citing in its grant application a similar critical need for science and math teachers in its home state. For example, according to the state Department of Education, out of the 36 higher education institutions in Tennessee with approved programs in biology, chemistry, and physics, only three physics teachers were prepared in academic year 2008–09.

Although Tennessee’s trends mirror those in many regions of the country, there are several state-specific factors that could account for the shortage, including teachers’ salaries.

“It is clear to me that we need to pay our quality teachers more to keep them in state, as our pay scales are below those of neighboring states like Georgia,” Riechert says. She adds that although VolsTeach cannot raise teacher salaries outright, it will produce highly qualified teachers, deserving of competitive salaries, as well as postgraduate developmental support.

VolsTeach participant Mindy Hopkins.

VolsTeach participant Mindy Hopkins.

Effective in the classroom

VolsTeach does not just strive to maximize the numbers of science and math teachers available to Tennessee classrooms. Riechert says the program also aims to develop in its interns teaching skills that will engage students in their own learning. Today’s students are largely passive learners that are fed content that they memorize and forget soon after. Understanding concepts and how to apply that understanding will serve students throughout their life and career as informed citizens and members of the workforce.

“There is a major need to get students to change from passive to active, or engaged, learners. This can be best accomplished through exercises involving inquiry with science used to reinforce math concepts,” Riechert says, adding that VolsTeach students will experience, as well as learn to be facilitators of, inquiry-based interdisciplinary learning.

Effective teaching can be even more successful in the long term by boosting more students into careers in STEM-related fields. Starks says that her high-school experience had a big influence on her decision to pursue advanced education in science.

“My teachers were always enthusiastic, and they always pushed us to strive for excellence. I decided to teach biology specifically because my eleventh-grade anatomy and physiology/biology teacher encouraged me to pursue a career in the biology field by presenting several career opportunities,” Starks says.

Starks’ experience illustrates that of all the variables affecting education, it is still the teacher that matters most.

For more information on VolsTeach, visit volsteach.utk.edu.

—Meredith McGroarty