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Auburn University interdisciplinary team committed to reversing STEM teacher shortage in Alabama through UTeach program

Collaborative effort propelled by $3 million grant from Alabama STEM Council
Published: January 11, 2023 | Updated: January 17, 2023
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Professors from Auburn University’s College of Education and College of Sciences and Mathematics are joining forces to help reverse a glaring shortage of K-12 science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, teachers throughout the state of Alabama.

An interdisciplinary team from the College of Sciences and Mathematics, or COSAM, and the College of Education will use a $3 million grant from the Alabama STEM Council to develop a UTeach program at Auburn. The team is led by co-directors Christine Schnittka from the College of Education and Stephanie Shepherd from COSAM and also includes COSAM’s Katherine Buckley and Mary Lou Ewald and Paul Fitchett from the College of Education.

Auburn’s program, AUTeach, will be generated thanks to a partnership between the Alabama STEM Council and the UTeach Institute—a national network of colleges and universities working together to improve STEM teaching and learning in the United States—designed to increase the number of effective STEM teachers and to diversify the pipeline of secondary STEM teachers.

Alabama is facing a severe shortage in certified STEM teachers, particularly in economically disadvantaged districts. The Alabama Commission on Higher Education in 2022 identified 68 school systems that were experiencing critical teacher shortages in science and/or math, with more than 30% of science teachers lacking full certification. Many of these districts are within an hour’s drive from Auburn University.

In some areas of the state’s Black Belt, 80% of science and math teachers lack full certification.

“COSAM graduates the highest number of STEM majors annually in the state,” said Shepherd, an associate professor in the Department of Geosciences. “Our graduates pursue many different career paths, from medicine to research. The AUTeach program will provide a pathway for our students to discover an important and rewarding career as a teacher. The combined training in science and education means we will be sending dynamic science teachers that can share their passion for and knowledge of science to K-12 students in Alabama.”

One of the central aims of Auburn’s AUTeach program will be to produce 60 highly skilled, certified secondary science teachers annually by year four of the five-year project. Auburn’s team plans to accomplish this through generous scholarships, community internships, mentoring, tutoring, early field experiences and a streamlined process that reflects current research in science teacher education.

The consequences of having under-prepared educators in classrooms can be devastating and are likely to have long-term social, economic and technological impacts on the state.

“Teaching school is mission work. It’s a noble career, a way to serve humanity,” said Schnittka, a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching. “Teaching science is particularly important right now, when scientific and technological advances are both improving and destroying our lives, and only a scientifically literate population will be able to understand, tackle and wrestle with the challenges that we are certain to face. AUTeach offers an additional path for Auburn’s college students who love science to graduate in four years, certified to teach.

“We have a fantastic teacher preparation program in the College of Education, and now we will have an additional path in collaboration with COSAM to reach, educate, inspire, graduate and certify the science teachers that our youth need in order to grow into scientifically literate problem solvers.”

As the premier land-grant university in Alabama and a leader in preparing students to enter careers in both STEM and science education, Auburn is uniquely positioned to produce highly qualified middle and high school science teachers. Auburn consistently produces more graduates with STEM degrees than any other university in Alabama and certifies the second-largest pool of secondary teachers.

“AUTeach is an innovative partnership that will help us produce more science teachers during a time of critical need for this expertise,” said Jeffrey T. Fairbrother, dean and Wayne T. Smith Distinguished Professor for the College of Education. “As our lives become more and more dependent upon technology, we need to prepare future generations to work in STEM fields. Science teachers provide the foundation for children to move into these fields.

“Science also teaches our children analytical thinking and problem-solving skills. We are excited to receive this award so we can increase our contributions to the training of science teachers and help ensure students in Alabama receive the best science education possible.”

At Auburn, after three years, fewer than a third of science majors persist in their originally intended majors. However, the students who abandon a science career before the end of their third year of college chose to study it because they had a passion for it. AUTeach will offer them an alternative career path to stay immersed in the science they love and use their talents to give back and help educate the next generation.

“Students at Auburn University can make a difference in the critical STEM teacher shortage in the state of Alabama through AUTeach,” said COSAM Interim Dean Edward Thomas Jr. “These students who are majoring in science will receive additional pedagogical training to help them inspire the next generation of students as STEM teachers in K-12 schools.”

AUTeach will provide another critical career path for COSAM undergraduates. Students in the program will receive a degree in biology, chemistry, geosciences or physics and a second major in education. The curriculum is specially designed so that students will gain experience in K-12 classrooms early, take courses in their chosen science discipline—as well as educational theory and practice—and successfully complete the program in four years.

Other universities setting up their own UTeach programs beginning this spring are Auburn University at Montgomery, or AUM, Alabama A&M University, Athens State University, the University of South Alabama and the University of West Alabama. The University of Alabama at Birmingham was the first university in the state to establish a UTeach program.

About the Alabama STEM Council
The Alabama STEM Council was formed on Sept. 21, 2020, by Gov. Kay Ivey’s Executive Order No. 721. The Council members represent leaders from Alabama businesses, education and state government. The Council’s work builds on and extends Alabama’s Roadmap to STEM Success by advising on ways to improve STEM education and STEM-related career awareness and workforce pathways.

About the UTeach Institute
The UTeach Institute works to improve secondary STEM teaching and learning through the national expansion of the UTeach secondary STEM teacher preparation program to colleges and universities. Over 15 years, the Institute has employed a comprehensive approach to successful program development in higher education settings and serves as the national hub to a networked community of 50 universities implementing UTeach programs. Learn more at www.uteach-institute.org.

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification, life-changing outreach with Carnegie’s Community Engagement designation and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn’s commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact.

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