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With less than 10% of the state's vacancies for mathematics and science educators filled and lower performance scores in these subjects nationwide, the question nags--where are the qualified teachers and what can schools do to strengthen their recruitment?
A new program at UF may have the answer. UFTeach, a collaboration between the College of Education (COE) and the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences (CLAS), is a curriculum based around students seeking education degrees in math and science. Patterned on the UTeach model at the University of Texas at Austin, UFTeach is designed to support qualified new teachers and aspiring teachers through their induction process integrating teaching techniques with research methods and practical field experience. UF is joining its efforts with 12 other colleges and universities, including Florida State University and the University of California at Berkeley.
With the PROTEACH masters program already in place at UF, this initiative and others like it is what undergraduates need, especially when it comes to training, according to UFTeach master teacher Dr. Griff Jones.
"This program could better prepare them for a career in teaching, and allowing new teachers to have students in their fields without pedagogy or a degree is lowering standards and setting them (the teachers) up for failure," he said.
UFTeach covers from 25-28 credits and can be treated as a minor. After a preview session, students of UFTeach sign up for Step 1, a COE 1-credit course that coaches students in project-based instruction, which involves drawing up lesson plans with a partner--and teaching them to elementary school students at the P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School or in the Alachua County school district.
"In a lot of programs, most students don't get field experiences until junior year and with this program, they start as freshmen," said Gloria Weber, a master teacher for UFTeach. Weber added that she loves being able to watch the growth and development of the students as they learn to deal with younger kids.
As the student pairs learn to design and deliver lesson plans, a mentor teacher, who is present at all times and who provides immediate feedback, attends them. A master teacher also supervises them and gives additional help. UFTeach currently has 12 middle school teachers working as mentors from four schools in Alachua County, including Lincoln and Howard Bishop and also 14 elementary school teachers from schools like J.J. Finley and Glen Springs.
Also taught in Step 1 is inquiry-based instruction, a student-centered, teacher-guided learning method. With this practice, teachers learn to step out of the way and let students investigate the lesson plan and relate it to their own interests, thereby helping to develop critical thinking skills through analysis, questions and solutions, and making their learning visible to themselves.
"We don't want them (the teachers) to be a sage on the stage," Jones said. "We want them to be a guide on the side."
Weber agreed. "The kids are actively engaged in their own learning, not little vessels that we fill, and this is how people can truly learn," she said.
Students will continue from Step 1 to Step 2, another COE course that covers inquiry-based lessons in designing science and mathematics lesson plans. After that, students will move on to CLAS courses such as the Fall 2009 "Perspectives in Math & Science," taught by the History Department, and "Research Methods" in Spring 2010, taught by the chair of the Physics Department, Dr. Alan Dorsey, who is also co-coordinator of the UFTeach program along with Dr. Tom Dana, the associate dean of the COE.
Since its inception in 2008, the program has received generous praise and unexpected interest from students. While approximately 25 students were anticipated for the first session, over 50 students registered, prompting the staff to open up a new class to accommodate them. The group includes 35 female students, eight Hispanic students, four African-American students and four Asian students. Twenty-five students have returned to complete Step 2 of the program. Jones attributed this early success in part to the grants that fund UFTeach.
"There was no funded, specific program that was co-operative, until now," he said. "The money made the difference and it's allowed for new resources to develop."
Backed by a $1.4 million grant from the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI), sponsored by Exxon/Mobil, UF will match the money over five years with another $1 million endowment from NMSI at the end of this period. The Helios Foundation has made a $1 million gift to both UF and FSU and in addition to many private donors, UF has a new grant pending from the Smallwood Foundation, which may enable UFTeach to offer paid internships starting in the summer of 2010, according to Dr. Dimple Malik Flesner, associate director of UFTeach.
If internships become available, they could assist in encouraging students to stay and remain immersed in the program. With the temptations of high-paying research jobs and other avenues for math and science majors, it can be difficult for educators to keep students interested in the toil of teaching. But even if students decide that teaching is not their field, the experiences they take away can be invaluable to their career development.
"We're casting a large net," said Jones. "Some students may never go into teaching, but I think they'll know more about what education is and they can be advocates, as well as better communicators and multi-taskers."
Katrina Short, the teaching assistant for UFTeach, noted that the staff focused on reaching the students in many ways and that effective instruction works on many levels. She is confident that this curriculum will continue to thrive.
"The interest in the courses themselves prove the success of this program," she said.
Jones agreed, and added that UFTeach was not the only valuable show in educational programs for Florida, noting that there were many wonderful programs out there.
"We're just trying to develop some integral courses that really address the heart of what it means to be a good teacher," he said. "We need to change what the teachers say and how they say it so that it keeps students' interest and helps them to truly understand teaching."
For more information on UFTeach, please visit the website at http://ufteach.clas.ufl.edu.