Greg Alexander

Filling a critical need

Baltimore Sun, April 15, 2007

It’s amazing how much the math and science lessons we’re taught in middle and high school affect us well after graduation. From determining the appropriate tip to leave a restaurant server to adjusting your diet to incorporate the basic food groups, math and science are permanent fixtures in our lives. However, studies show that the United States is lagging behind other world powers in producing top-notch graduates in these subjects, decreasing the country’s competitive stance. Buoyed by a national educational initiative – the National Science Board Commission on 21st Century Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) – local universities are tackling these concerns by focusing on producing exceptional teachers in these areas, as well as partnering with local middle and high schools to better prepare students before they reach college.

“Every state, including Maryland, is addressing the STEM initiative at the K-12 level, but universities, especially those in urban environments, need to step up and do more. We need to find a way to interface with middle and high school teachers to ease the transition for students in math and science once they reach college and have them be more competitive globally since we recognize that the United States has fallen behind other countries in these areas,” says Joseph Whittaker, dean of the School of Computer, Mathematical & Natural Sciences at Morgan State University. “Synergy between colleges and middle and high schools, as well as between local colleges, is needed to get a grasp on this issue.”

Building Bridges

As part of the STEM initiative, the National Science Board made several recommendations, one of which was for coordination between school districts and between different levels of education. For the past five years, Goucher College has conducted an AP Summer Institute, offered by the Welch Center for Graduate and Professional Studies at Goucher College, in collaboration with the Middle States Regional Office of the College Board. Each summer, high school teachers who teach AP classes can attend a one-week training session to help make them better teachers and to initiate partnerships between their school and the college. Last year, more than 450 teachers came to Goucher from all over the country, says Elaine Guarnieri-Nunn, director of the Teachers’ Institute at Goucher College. “Of those participants, about 170 of them were math and science teachers,” says Guarnieri-Nunn. The AP Summer Institute offers courses for teachers in an array of subjects, including statistics, biology, calculus, chemistry, physics and environmental science. In the biology course, for example, teachers conduct laboratories and discuss ways to troubleshoot common classroom problems associated with them.

“Many AP physics teachers, for example, last studied physics in high school. Some of them have never taught physics before or have taught regular physics but not AP physics,” says Guarnieri-Nunn. “It can be daunting and intimidating for new teachers, so these classes help them to be better prepared and be at ease in the classroom,” she says, adding that more than 80 percent of the participants receive financial assistance, either from the school, school district or through a grant. “One year, there was a grant that allowed 48 teachers in Baltimore County to take a course at the AP Summer Institute.

“There is a wide range of experience level for the high school teachers who attend. So, this year we are offering a three-day ‘content refresher’ course preceding the week-long course in AP calculus for new teachers,” says Guarnieri-Nunn, who says that future “content refresher” courses are planned.

While at the AP Summer Institute, Guarnieri-Nunn says that high school teachers meet with Goucher faculty in their subject area. “The Goucher faculty wants to meet with the high school teachers to start an articulation between the teachers and the faculty. Last year, the chemistry professors at Goucher hosted a lunch for the chemistry high school teachers to discuss how Goucher can help them better prepare their students for college. The physics faculty, meanwhile, encourages the AP physics teachers to come back to campus to hold classroom experiments.”

For the past five years, local high school teachers have also partnered with The Johns Hopkins University (JHU) to share knowledge and improve their teaching skills. Founded and coordinated by Bruce Barnett, a physics professor at JHU, the local chapter of QuarkNet brings local high school teachers to JHU each summer for a week of lectures, lab experiments and discussions. “At some high schools, the ones teaching physics were not physics majors in college; many were trained in biology. High schools have a difficult time hiring teachers that are trained in the various science disciplines, and some have never taken a physics course themselves,” says Barnett, who was recently awarded the “Outstanding Faculty Award” by the Maryland Association of Higher Education. Barnett explains that QuarkNet was originated by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy to encourage a better public understanding of physics, including high school teachers.

“The first year, we had two teachers sign up; the next year we had 12,” says Barnett, a 31-year veteran at JHU. “The discussions and lectures increase their knowledge base that they take back to the classroom. We have teachers from all over the state attend to share their experiences with each other.” Barnett also helped create JHU’s annual Physics Fair, attended by more than 300 people each April. “The goal is to get science out in the community in an open house environment with films, lectures and contests for high school students,” he adds.

Helping create better teachers

Of course, to improve math and science in schools, you need great teachers. According to a report from the National Academies called “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” 10,000 new science and math teachers each year need to be recruited through competitive scholarships in math, science and engineering that lead to a bachelor’s degree accompanied by a teaching certificate. Helping fill this need is University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), aided by a recent $5 million gift from George and Betsy Sherman to fund the Sherman STEM Teacher Education Program at UMBC to educate science and math teachers for urban schools. The Shermans – he was an engineer, she a teacher – decided to focus on these areas to help educate teachers focusing on subject matter that will make the workforce competitive, says Mark Terranova, associate director of Foundation Relations at UMBC, who notes that the initial gift of $1 million was given a few years ago to start the Sherman Family Teacher Scholars program.

“At UMBC, students major in the subject matter that will teach – biology, for example – and obtain a teaching certificate through the education department. Cohorts help explain to students what it’s like to teach in a high-needs school where students may be two reading levels behind. Students also get first-hand experience in these schools so that they are not blindsided when they graduate and start teaching.” Terranova says that the Shermans “bucked the trend and focused on high-needs schools in the Baltimore area. The Sherman program will provide scholarships for undergraduate and graduate students to allow graduates to move right into teaching STEM courses in area high-needs schools.”

Terranova says that UMBC looks at three types of students to recruit future teachers. “First, you have students who have already decided to teach. Secondly, we look at freshmen, sophomores and juniors who are majoring in a STEM discipline but have not thought about teaching. They don’t have to switch their majors and deciding to teach may only add a semester to their schooling to obtain the teaching certificate. We also work with transfer students from community colleges. In all three areas, the Sherman program will allow UMBC to offer financial assistance.”

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