Starting early to nurture tomorrow’s scientists and engineers

April 21, 2013

From a leafy campus in Bethesda, officials at Howard Hughes Medical Institute are trying to do their part to build the next generation of American scientists, mathematicians and engineers.

The institute, funded by a $16.1 billion endowment, has been funneling millions into science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs, including an expansion of a program meant to train STEM teachers.

In March, the institute committed $22.5 million over five years — via the National Math and Science Initiative — to a program known as UTeach, which originated at the University of Texas in Austin. The program enables undergraduates to earn a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field and a teaching certificate in four years.

UTeach is the brainchild of Mary Ann Rankin, who is now provost at the University of Maryland in College Park and a board member of the National Math and Science Initiative. Formerly a dean at the University of Texas-Austin, she started the program there in 1997.

Concerned about the science education she saw her daughter receiving in elementary school in Texas, Rankin was motivated to come up with a better way for training teachers. She met with award-winning local teachers to help her put together a curriculum that would produce better teachers.

In the classroom, Rankin said, her daughter was given the same type of math problems over and over, with different numbers. “That’s never going to inspire anybody,” Rankin said.

She expected about a week’s worth of help from the teachers, but they worked all summer on the curriculum.

“I wanted master teachers ... I wanted a lot of experience, especially early on, for the kids in classrooms,” Rankin said. “I wanted a full math or science degree — I didn’t want any compromises there.”

The program was designed to give students specialized training in the STEM major of their choice, and to get them working with students in the classroom.

UTeach has not only expanded at Texas, but has also spread to other states. About three dozen schools, including Towson University in Baltimore County, already have the program in place.

At each site, Rankin said the program must be run by faculty members as well as master teachers, it must be doable in four years and it must include experience working with students.

David Asai, senior director of science education at the Hughes Institute, said the institute’s funding will allow 10 research universities to join UTeach.

The National Math and Science Initiative, which is managing the institute’s grant, has invited research universities to apply. Applications are due in the fall.

For the Hughes Institute, the program has a dual appeal. In the short term, it trains more undergraduate students in STEM work, producing better teachers in those subjects. In the long term, if the program works as intended, it cultivates better science and math students, who may pursue STEM degrees in college and enter STEM fields, Asai said.

He said the institute has been watching UTeach for several years, interested in its approach as well as its success. After five years, about 50 percent of STEM teachers nationwide are no longer teaching, but about 70 percent of those trained through UTeach are still teaching after five years, according to Asai.

As part of the Hughes Institute’s grant, the National Math and Science Initiative will assess UTeach’s impact. Asai said the institute particularly wants to see universities prepare to dedicate their own resources to the initiative.

“We want to make some changes begin ... but we can’t cover everybody,” he said.

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