KNOXVILLE—When Joel Smith stood before a fourth-grade science class at Anderson County’s Grand Oaks Elementary School last fall, he understood for the first time a teacher’s grave responsibility of educating students.
“Even though it’s science, it’s something that can help them in their day-to-day lives,” he said.
Although nervous, Smith, 28, a University of Tennessee senior in physics, said he felt prepared as he taught the Grand Oaks pupils during his field experience, thanks to his training through UT’s VolsTeach program.
The initiative, which aims to produce math and science teachers to work in Tennessee’s high-need public elementary, middle, and high schools, has received a $1.2 million, five-year grant from the Robert Noyce Program of the National Science Foundation.
The award is recognition of VolsTeach’s effectiveness and its emphasis on early and ongoing hands-on experience in the field, students and staff said.
“It’s the way math and science education should be,” Smith said. “It’s more like a guided apprenticeship than just learning stuff in a classroom. (Public school) students are getting experts now. They’re not just getting a warm body reading out of a biology textbook.”
VolsTeach, in its second year, is a collaboration between UT’s College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences.
It targets undergraduate math, science, and engineering majors who may be interested in teaching. Students are able to earn a degree in their discipline and a secondary education teaching license within four years and at no extra cost. It’s based on the UTeach program at the University of Texas.
Students take VolsTeach as a minor under their major, said program co-director Susan Riechert. They earn one degree that gives them two career paths, she said.
“They can go right into the job market if they want to,” Riechert said. “If they decide not to go into teaching, you haven’t lost anything. You’ve learned to communicate.”
The NSF grant will pay for scholarships and summer and academic-year internships. Juniors and seniors who agree to go into teaching for two years in high-need schools will receive $12,000 scholarships for their junior and senior years at UTK.
Students will also receive $10,000 during their first year of teaching to set up a lab for their students or use for professional development. Additionally, they will be paid fifteen dollars an hour during an internship in an outreach program.
Starting in spring 2012, the VolsTeach program, in collaboration with the National Institute for Mathematical & Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS), will offer a monthly seminar series on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, issues through support from this grant.
The event will be open to UTK educators, students and public school teachers. The first topic will be about climate change.
VolsTeach has been more successful than its founders anticipated. About fifty students were projected to be part of the first class and instead ninety-three students joined, Riechert said. This year, seventy-five more students have enrolled thus far.
The initiative is a way to address the shortage of STEM educators, said Bob Rider, dean of the College of Education, Health and Human Sciences.
“The need for highly qualified math and science teachers is pervasive, not only in the state of Tennessee but in the country,” he said. “We’re just doing our part to fill that need.”
For more about the program, visit http://volsteach.utk.edu/.
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