They say every child is a natural scientist — questioning the world around them, exploring their surroundings at every turn. Yet despite this natural propensity, student test scores in the areas of math and science have been on a steady decline in the United States — a trend many believe endangers our ability to compete in a 21st-century global economy. In 2005, the National Academies’ influential report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Futurecalled the current state of math and science education in the United States a “national emergency” that if left unattended would jeopardize our nation’s economy for decades to come. Among the recommendations made in the report was a call to improve K–12 math and science education by bolstering the ranks of math and science teachers by 10,000 nationally. UTeach, at The University of Texas at Austin, was mentioned specifically as a model for accomplishing this ambitious goal.
Developed in 1997, UTeach is an innovative teacher preparation program that has had enormous success recruiting high-quality undergraduate students for careers as secondary science, math and computer science teachers. In just 11 years, the program doubled the number of math and science teachers prepared at UT Austin, now certifying more than 70 students every year. More than 90 percent of UTeach graduates go on to teach in their respective fields and more than 80 percent continue five years after starting, compared to only 60 percent nationally. In addition, about 40 percent of UTeach graduates teach in low-income schools where more than 45 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches. The UTeach program has proven to be so effective as a platform for raising the quantity and quality of math and science teachers that it is now being replicated at universities across the United States.
History of UTeach
Mary Ann Rankin, dean of the College of Natural Sciences at UT Austin and UTeach creator, says she initiated the program because she was concerned about the current landscape of math and science teaching. “A lot of what we take for granted depends on our ability to be innovative and technologically sophisticated,” says Rankin, “And, we’re losing that ability; we’re losing that edge. I believe the reason is because we’re not training enough teachers who really know their discipline — teachers who are not just good at teaching math and science, but can inspire students to go into careers in these disciplines. I wanted to start a program that would attract excellent math and science students to teaching as their first choice.”
Working closely with the College of Education and the Austin Independent School District, Dean Rankin brought together a group of experienced secondary teachers and administrators and asked them to design a teacher preparation program based on national standards, educational research, and their years of experience in the K–12 setting.
“In the place of general education courses we created new pedagogy courses with a focus on how to teach math and science with modern theories of learning.” says Dr. Larry Abraham, UTeach co-director and former chair of the College of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction. “UTeach students learn to design and teach inquiry-based lessons that develop critical thinking skills. They have access to the latest research on learning and are prepared to use technology effectively in the classroom.”
Other hallmarks of the program include paid internships, early and continuing field experience, and the inclusion of master teachers that advise and mentor as part of the UTeach faculty.
“Students who enter the program at the same time move through together, teaching and motivating one another,” says Dean Rankin. “And, they receive firsthand experience in the public school classroom as early as their freshman year.” This early field experience is essential, says Dean Rankin, as it allows students to discover the direct impact they can have as future teachers.
“You take almost any scientist and ask about her career path and why she’s a scientist,” says Rankin, “and I think you’ll find there was a teacher somewhere in that person’s background that inspired her to follow that path.”
“Kids need to see science in action,” says Elizabeth Abernathy, a former UTeach student who now teaches eighth-grade science at Bedichek Middle School in Austin. “When you are actually doing things, you are experiencing the process of science. It changes the way you think about things. You learn how to think critically.”
Abernathy received her teacher certification in 2003 then completed the UTeach Summer Masters program in 2008. Designed to provide working teachers the opportunity to further their professional development without having to take time off from teaching, the UTeach Summer Masters is a 2½ year course of study that offers three full-time summer sessions and part-time sessions in the fall and spring. “As a teacher, you are continually working to refine your practice,” says Abernathy. “To be a better science teacher, you need to be better at science. Through the UTeach Summer Masters program, I was able to take both education and science courses.”
With more than five years experience in the classroom, Abernathy says she continues to learn from the training she received through UTeach. “I learned things through the program that I’m just beginning to realize the impact of — I’ll think ‘hey, that’s why I learned that — that’s why you taught me that.'” But, she is also quick to note the strong foundation the program gave her and the understanding that teaching, like science, is an ever-evolving practice. “We’re all students,” she says.” We’re all learning.”
The UTeach Institute
The UTeach Institute was developed in 2006 to provide direction and leadership for efforts to help other interested universities replicate the program. In 2007, UTeach received about 25 percent of an unprecedented $125 million grant from the ExxonMobil Foundation to the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) to expand and replicate programs that had been proven to be successful in improving secondary math and science education. Additional funding for UTeach replication has come from both public and private sources, including the Texas Education Agency, the Texas High School Project and the Texas Communities Foundation.
Fifty-two institutions of higher education submitted proposals in 2007 for replication funding; of those, 29 then were invited to submit full proposals. After a thorough review, 13 colleges and universities — three in Texas — were selected to receive grant funding up to $2.4 million over a five-year period. Additional replication opportunities across Texas and the nation are anticipated as financial support is secured by NMSI, state agencies or individual universities.
In addition to the grants, the UTeach Institute has developed numerous resources to help in replication efforts nationwide, including a UTeach operations manual and a framework for collecting demographic data and conducting evaluations. The UTeach Institute is also building a community of faculty and master teachers who will instruct UTeach courses.
“UTeach has proven to be a very successful model for preparing our next-generation science and math teachers and we’re very excited to have the opportunity to replicate the program at universities across the United States,” says Mary Ann Rankin, “The more the program spreads, the more fine teachers will be produced to inspire and educate our nation’s children to discover and create new science and technology for the future.”