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Innovative new program at UT Austin confronts K-12 science teacher shortage, prepares University students for the classroom

Gayleen Porterpan, a junior at The University of Texas at Austin, is the kind of college student school systems must dream of: Someone who is armed with knowledge and modern technological teaching tools who can’t wait to stand before a high school classroom teaching biology, mathematics or computer science.

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AUSTIN, TexasGayleen Porterpan, a junior at The University of Texas at Austin, is the kind of college student school systems must dream of: Someone who is armed with knowledge and modern technological teaching tools who can’t wait to stand before a high school classroom teaching biology, mathematics or computer science.

Texas and other states, however, have been confronted with serious shortages of teachers in these fields as college students opt for careers in the higher paying business and high-tech worlds.

To alter this trend and produce more students like Porterpan, UT Austin has developed a new teacher preparation program to actively recruit and support college undergraduates who are interested in K-12 math and science education careers. The UTeach Program, a joint effort of the College of Natural Sciences, the College of Education and the Austin Independent School District, has quickly become a nationwide model.

“Texas is confronted with teaching shortages in the areas of math and science, yet statistics show the demand for teachers in these fields is forecast to increase by 22 percent over the next decade,” said Dr. Mary Ann Rankin, dean of the College of Natural Sciences. “As a flagship institution, UT Austin is well positioned to do something to remedy the crisis.”

The University is aggressive in its effort to attract students to explore the secondary school science teaching career option. Immediately upon being accepted into the College of Natural Sciences, freshmen are sent a letter asking them if they have ever considered teaching. If they choose to sign up for the UTeach program, the college will cover tuition for the first two one-hour classes. “We wanted to induce students to pursue this path as a first career choice,” said Rankin. “We wanted to create a program that would attract our strongest students and one that students themselves would view as highly prestigious and desirable. And, one that they could complete in four years with certification.

“UTeach has enjoyed phenomenal success,” she said. Last fall, 148 undergraduates were enrolled in Uteach, and the goal is to increase the number to 500 — which would enable the college to produce more than 100 new teachers a year.

The new program also has earned endorsement from educational policy makers across the country, Rankin said. The National Research Council has expressed interest in piloting a program at UT Austin to train Ph.D.s as secondary science and math teachers, based in large part upon the UTeach program. In addition, The Education Trust in Washington, D.C., an organization promoting college and university support for K-12 reform efforts, has selected UTeach as a model to be included in a white paper to be published in the near future.

The UTeach curriculum involves a four-year program of study in which new teaching techniques, research opportunities, field experience and the study of math and science are fully integrated. New streamlined classes replace traditional education courses in the old degree plans. Students are encouraged to move through the program together, teaching and motivating each other.

In addition to regular faculty, the College of Natural Sciences has hired three master high school teachers in the program as instructors, advisers and field supervisors. “I wanted to involve superb teaching models in student advising and instruction — not just good college teachers, but excellent high school teachers who really know what it takes to be successful at that level,” Rankin said.

One key element of UTeach is early classroom exposure — as early as their freshman year, University students experience the public school classroom and teach for progressively longer periods of time under a mentor AISD teacher. “Those who have an affinity for the profession will be hooked,” Rankin said. “Those who don’t will find out early and pursue other options. It’s basically a reality check.”

Porterpan, who recently taught an Earth sciences class at Porter Middle School, agrees. “It would be horrible to discover when you are a senior — after several years of preparation — that you actually hate getting up in front of students.” Porterpan said teaching is something she always has wanted to do, and UTeach confirms her decision and makes the process easier.

Note to Editors: For interviews about the UTeach program, contact Dr. Mary Ann Rankin, at (512) 471-3285. For photographs of Gayleen Porterpan student teaching at Porter Middle School, contact Marsha Miller at marsha@opa.wwh.edu.