Texas needs many more STEM workers and teachers.
STEM jobs, those that rely on expertise in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, comprise a growing and increasingly important economic sector in Texas. There are 2.5 STEM jobs available for every unemployed person in Texas. In contrast, there are 3.3 unemployed people for every non-STEM job available in Texas. Productivity and further economic growth in Texas increasingly depends on an educated STEM workforce. However, Texas is currently not on track to produce the number of STEM degree holders that the state desperately needs – and to produce STEM degree holders, we need STEM teachers to prepare students for college and to inspire them to pursue STEM careers.
In 2000, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board responded to economic forecasts by establishing new targets for engineering, mathematics, computer science, and physical science degrees awarded by four-year universities, aiming to more than double the number of degrees awarded annually, from 12,000 to 29,000 by 2015. While the number of degrees awarded increased by nearly six percent (1,011 more degrees) from fiscal year 2011 to 2012, the level needs to increase by over 3,600 a year to reach the 2015 target of 29,000. Math and science teacher production is even more in jeopardy, with production numbers dropping since 2010, and the 2015 target of 6,500 new math and science teacher certifications is nearly two-and-a-half times the actual number of certifications produced in 2012 (2,643).
Of those students who enter a four-year institution of higher education in Texas, about half graduate with a degree. And just 15 percent of Texas college degrees and certificates are in STEM disciplines. How do we increase the number of high school graduates who have an interest in and are prepared to successfully pursue degrees and careers in STEM disciplines? Improving the participation and performance of Texas students in science, technology, engineering and math has to begin with the preparation of qualified STEM teachers for K-12 schools. Two-thirds of science and math classes in Texas middle schools are taught by teachers who are not certified in the subjects. Less than half of all eighth grade math and science teachers have a degree in their subject. And 40 percent of all math and science teachers leave teaching within five years.
In Texas, about half of new teachers come from college and university-based programs and half from alternative certification programs. Alternative certification programs, while they address a need to provide an expedited and affordable avenue that results in more candidates for shortage teaching areas, do not provide a viable, long-term solution to the persistent problem of low engagement and poor performance in STEM knowledge and skills among high school and college students in the state. Likewise, while there are examples of high-quality STEM teacher preparation programs at Texas colleges and universities, they have failed to attract and prepare enough teachers to meet the needs in the state. Undergraduate STEM majors at our state’s colleges and universities represent one of the best sources for new STEM teachers. After all, Texas institutions of higher education are home to some of the world’s top scientific minds and education researchers, whose work is critical to advancing knowledge in the STEM disciplines. These same institutions have a critical role to play in recruiting and preparing Texas’s best STEM teachers. But they need to do some things differently in order to realize this largely untapped potential. It is time to rethink who we are recruiting to become STEM teachers and how we are preparing them for the job.
When it comes to preparing secondary STEM teachers, we must address some unique challenges and opportunities. STEM majors have a wide array of career options available to them. As a starting point, attracting these majors to teaching requires that certification pathways be designed so that they expand, rather than limit, career options, and they must not require additional time at the university or cost to the student. STEM teacher preparation programs must also be laser focused on the development of teaching abilities through the lens of deep content knowledge and skills.
The UTeach STEM teacher preparation program provides one promising solution. UTeach, begun at the University of Texas at Austin, has recently been expanded to 39 universities nationally, including eight Texas universities, and is beginning to show promising results. Once mature, these eight Texas programs are on track to produce a combined total of more than 350 new teachers annually.
UTeach is designed specifically to attract students who come to the university to pursue their interests in science and math. These students do not arrive at the university planning to become teachers. UTeach specifically recruits these majors and provides them with early opportunities to explore teaching without requiring a commitment. In fact, UTeach pairs teaching certification with a rigorous STEM degree that still allows students to pursue a STEM career or graduate school if they choose. In this way, UTeach expands, rather than limits, career options for students. Students who choose to pursue an interest in teaching do so through a program tailored specifically to meet their needs. UTeach focuses exclusively on STEM teaching and learning, emphasizes inquiry and project-based instruction, and develops science, math, and engineering practices. In the end, many students surprise themselves by falling in love with teaching and do, in fact, choose to enter the profession. Approximately 90 percent of UTeach graduates enter teaching, and 80 percent are still teaching five years later.
There is a significant population of talented undergraduate STEM majors who do not yet know that they want to become teachers, but who, because of their love for math and science, have the potential to be great teachers. UTeach is designed to help them discover and then realize that potential. Investing in the expansion of successful, university-based programs to increase the number of high-quality STEM teachers makes economic sense for Texas.
Kimberly Hughes is the Director of the UTeach Institute, a program started on the University of Texas at Austin campus in 1997. It has since expanded to eight universities in Texas and 39 university campuses in the U.S.