With grant, UWA is addressing state’s shortage of science, math teachers

A student performs a science experiment at UWA.

‘Unique curriculum’ is planned for UWA Teach program

Story: Phillip Tutor

By the time fall arrives on the University of West Alabama campus, Dr. Reenay Rogers and her College of Education colleagues expect their newest endeavor to be worth the excitement it’s generating this winter.

Spurred by a $3 million grant from the Alabama STEM Council, UWA is developing a new program, called UWA Teach, that is designed to improve the quality of science and math instruction and the number of teachers for STEM classes in the state’s K-12 public schools. Shortening the teacher certification process for UWA education students is one of the program’s key components.

The program is expected to begin with the fall 2023 semester.

“It’s going to do a lot for us,” said Rogers, associate dean of UWA’s College of Education. “Hopefully, we’ll be putting more teachers into the field at a faster rate. The great thing about this grant is that it opens up teacher certification to all STEM majors.”

Through an executive order, Gov. Kay Ivey created the Alabama STEM Council in 2020 in response to recommendations from the Governor’s Advisory Council for Excellence in STEM. In its report, “Alabama’s Roadmap to STEM Success,” the advisory council determined that “at an overarching level, Alabama lacks a common vision to expand and weave our individual initiatives, resources and expertise into a coordinated STEM education network providing the workforce pipeline essential to the future of Alabama’s economy.”

As a result, the state’s STEM Council awarded $3 million grants in December to six public institutions: Alabama A&M University, Auburn University, Auburn University at Montgomery, Athens State University, the University of South Alabama and UWA. Previously, the University of Alabama at Birmingham housed the state’s only UTeach program.

With these grants, the universities will design programs to boost the number of teachers for STEM-related classes and streamline ways for students majoring in STEM programs to earn teacher certification. Addressing the state’s significant teacher shortage is paramount, according to the Governor’s Advisory Council.

“The shortage of teachers in general is across the nation, and the shortage of math and science teachers is even greater,” Rogers said. “If you add on the shortage of math and science teachers teaching in rural areas in Alabama, we’re talking about some schools that don’t have certified teachers at all in math or science.” 

State officials’ expectations for these grants are lofty — the creation of as many as 530 additional “highly qualified” STEM teachers for Alabama schools during the grants’ five-year lifespan, with a goal of training and graduating more than 250 STEM teachers annually once the grant period ends.

“UWA has produced a significant majority of educators in the State of Alabama for quite some time, and we are eager to strengthen our institution’s ongoing response to the teacher shortage that exists nationwide, but especially the teacher shortage in Alabama,” said UWA President Ken Tucker. “We are grateful for collaborative efforts facilitated by the Alabama STEM Council and the support it provides to help us to more effectively meet our region’s needs and continue building the foundation for a prosperous future for our fellow Alabamians.”

College of Education Dean Dr. Jan Miller estimates that approximately 95 percent of UWA’s certified teacher education graduates stay in Alabama classrooms.

UWA’s pioneering role in rural education

The UTeach program began in 1997 at the University of Texas at Austin and is used nationally as a guidepost for similar efforts. According to Gov. Ivey’s advisory council, the Texas program is designed to give math and science majors who want to teach “research-based, clinically intensive teacher preparation and continued support in their early teaching careers.” Additionally, the teaching careers of Texas’ UTeach program graduates are on average longer than their peers, and UTeach graduates “outperform their peers in science and math achievement,” the advisory council wrote.

Administrators at Texas’ UTeach Institute and the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, which is managing the grants, will assist UWA and the other universities with development of their programs.

In a proposal document for UWA Teach, university administrators noted that nearly half of Alabama’s public schools (45 percent) are considered rural, which unequally exposes them to teacher shortages. That’s an important consideration for UWA, its administrators wrote, which has a reputation for “pioneering a doctorate in rural education, developing a Center for Rural Education, and serving as the southeastern hub for the Rural Schools Collaborative.”

“I think it will create a more rigorous pathway for math and science (teachers), but also our teachers will come out better prepared and knowing how to teach math and science.” — Dr. Reenay Rogers, UWA College of Education

In its 2019 roadmap document, the governor’s advisory council presented a wider view of the state’s STEM needs in education and economic development and noted academic deficiencies in math and science among Alabama’s K-12 students. Alabama will need more than 850,000 STEM-related jobs by 2026, the council projected, but may not have enough qualified applicants. “Significant educator shortages make it difficult to recruit, train and retain well-qualified educators equipped in the methods of a modern STEM classroom,” the council wrote. Additionally, “STEM teacher shortages primarily affect minority and low-income communities.”

Rogers is ecstatic about the impact UWA Teach will have in Livingston and for graduates who will benefit from mentoring efforts during their first year in the classroom. The tangible advantages are numerous.

“It focuses specifically on how to teach math and science, whereas right now (students) get one class in methods of teaching math or science,” she said. “These courses are all geared towards that, with all of the educational foundation information interwoven into the curriculum.” 

The curriculum that UWA’s College of Education will develop in upcoming months should appeal to any student in a STEM-related major who “would be eligible to essentially get a minor in STEM teacher certification,” she said.

UWA Teach will include alumni opportunities

Rogers’ path to becoming a teacher is instructive to the value of this infant program. She holds two advanced degrees from the University of Alabama: a Ph.D. in Instructional Leadership with emphasis in instructional technology and a master’s degree in ​Secondary Education Comprehensive Science. Her bachelor’s degree at UA was in microbiology, which caused her to take what she calls an “alternative route” for teacher certification. That lengthened the process.

With UWA Teach, STEM students who want teacher certification can benefit from a streamlined approach by choosing their preferred major and simultaneously earning teacher certification. The number of hours required for an undergraduate degree likely wouldn’t increase, Rogers said. 

“That way, I would graduate with my microbiology degree, and if I had a job working in that field, that’s fine. I could pursue that,” she said. “However, it would open up the (teaching) option to pursue.”

College of Education administrators also plan to include alumni options in UWA Teach. Rogers envisions graduates with science or math degrees who haven’t found their desired jobs taking advantage of a shortened certification process.

“I think it will create a more rigorous pathway for math and science (teachers), but also our teachers will come out better prepared and knowing how to teach math and science,” she said. “That’s why it is a very unique curriculum.”