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STEM educators needed

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Initiative seeks to interest more UD students in teaching careers

UD student with child in classroom

Ashley Warokomski shows students at West End Neighborhood House how to make slime using glue, glitter and other materials, as they experiment with how the ratio of ingredients affects the result.

A small group of University of Delaware students majoring in science or engineering spent the summer engaging children and teens in STEM-related educational activitiespart of a new initiative designed to interest more undergraduates in teaching careers.

A 2016 research brief from the Learning Policy Institute, a nonprofit and nonpartisan think tank, found that 42 states reported shortages in available math teachers and 40 reported shortages in science teachers. Student enrollment in the next decade is expected to grow by 3 million nationally.

While demand grows, the institute said, the supply of teachers is shrinking, with attrition in the profession averaging 8% a year and fewer college students enrolling in and graduating from teacher preparation programs. The shortage is especially serious in schools serving low-income children.

Delaware is no exception.

At UD, the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS), which includes the Universitys Center for Secondary Teacher Education programs for prospective middle-school and high-school teachers, is beginning an initiative to address the problem by raising awareness about teaching careers among undergraduates and faculty in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

Were looking at a shortage of teachers across the board, and we want to improve our efforts to attract and retain them in secondary education, especially homing in on STEM, said Suzanne Burton, CAS interim associate dean for the arts, who oversees the teacher education program. We want students to be aware that we have this great teacher education program at UD and to think about it as an option.

Plans also call for outreach to science and math faculty members to encourage them to make their students aware of teaching as a possible career choice.

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UD student at work table with children

River Shannon oversees a project at West End Neighborhood House in which children use markers to draw patterns on coffee filters and then observe what happens when the filter absorbs water.

Students in the Universitys secondary education program earn a bachelors degree in a content areacompleting all the degree requirements of their discipline, in addition to teacher-education courses and fieldwork in schoolsand graduate with the preparation needed for state certification to teach in grades seven through 12. Programs include English, foreign languages, music and social studies, in addition to science (biology, chemistry, physics or earth science) and mathematics.

A lot of undergraduates may not be thinking about the benefits of a teaching career, and they also may not realize that not all teachers are in that career for their entire working lives, said Amy Trauth, who recently began a new position as associate director for secondary STEM education, part of the CAS initiative.

Some new graduates begin working in industry and then look for a change to something they find more fulfilling, while others start out as teachers and then move into something else. What we want to do is to expose our students to a variety of options.

Trauth launched a first step toward that goal with a STEM Scholars program this summer in which about a dozen students worked in Delaware schools and community centers with elementary and middle school youngsters.

As part of science and math enrichment programs, they led their students in activities that ranged from taking mock moon walks as astronauts to catching an invasive species of toad to making egg-carton spinal cords while learning how the brain functions.

At Mount Joy United Methodist Churchs UrbanPromise summer camp in Wilmington, senior Gabi Dagher used her background as a neuroscience major to also teach her elementary-age children about the human brain. She challenged the students to create their own skits that showcased the six major parts of the brain and their functions and, she said, was impressed with the students creativity.

Overall, this experience was definitely one of the most challenging things Ive had to do, Dagher said of her work. Ive gained a new appreciation for teachers as Ive realized how much work goes into planning a lesson.

Whether it is teaching full time or volunteering at after-school programs, I want to be working with kids in some capacity in the future. 

For mechanical engineering sophomore Reiley Bond, teaching at Appoquinimink High Schools summer program in Middletown, Delaware, also inspired him to think differently about his future. Although he still plans to work as an engineer after graduation, he said the idea of teaching at some point in his career now seems like a real possibility.

Teaching, he said, feels much more rewarding than any job Ive had in the past.

That feeling was echoed by juniors Ashley Warokomski and River Shannon, both science majors who taught this summer at West End Neighborhood House in Wilmington. The variety of subject matter, from space to insects, kept them busy planning hands-on activities that would hold the interest of active youngsters, they said.

An insect safari in the neighborhood park, with Warokomski dressed as a park ranger and her students carrying insect-catching kits, was a highlight of the summer, she said. The hardest part of the lesson turned out to be  getting the kids to stop the safari when time was up and return to the community center.

Although Warokomski and Shannon said they havent made any definite career plans, both called the STEM Scholars project worthwhile.

This overall experience has taught me a ton, Warokomski said. It has taught me how to be flexible and how to be mentally strong. It has taught me that kids can teach you just as much as you can teach them. Best of all, it has showed me that teaching is extremely rewarding.

For Trauth, that outcome is exactly what the program has been designed to do. She met with the STEM Scholars each Friday, discussing such subjects as pay and benefits that teachers receive and the job market for STEM teachers.

This summer, the students worked in informal settings, but they were teaching STEM, and I think it got them thinking about teaching, Trauth said. And theyve been great students. Everyone who worked with them has told me how outstanding they are.

During the fall semester, the Center for Secondary Teacher Education plans to hire a director for the program and to offer a one-credit seminar that explores teaching as a career. Students in that seminar will probably visit schools for a less-intensive field experience than was possible during the summer, Trauth said, and will learn about all aspects of teaching as a career.

The whole purpose is to let any interested STEM major check out what teaching is like, she said. We want students to be able to explore the question: What is it like to be a teacher? We think many of them will find more positive answers than they might have expected.

Article by Ann Manser; photos by Evan Krape

Published Sept. 4, 2019

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