George Lucas Educational Foundation

University of Texas at Austin: A Formula for Preparing High-Quality Math and Science Teachers

Math for the masses. Science, too.
Sara Bernard
Related Tags: Project-Based Learning
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Courtesy of University of Texas at Austin

The preparation of classroom teachers is more than a job for a single college," says physics professor Michael Marder, codirector of the UTeach program at the University of Texas at Austin. "It's a university-wide responsibility."

So goes the philosophy behind a new kind of teacher-preparation program -- one that aims to increase the number of high-quality math, science, and computer science teachers in K-12 schools through a partnership between the university's College of Natural Sciences and its College of Education. Its highlights include a faculty combining research scholars with master classroom teachers, award-winning criteria for technology integration, and an extensive package of postgraduate induction services.

Taken together, innovations such as these have garnered UTeach $125 million from the Exxon-Mobil Foundation to replicate its model nationwide. All math and science majors at the university are encouraged to become classroom teachers. Undergraduates can begin the program as early as their freshman year and complete it in addition to their original major. As an added incentive, the introductory courses -- which include multiple field experiences in local schools -- are offered free of charge. "It is these experiences that often convince students that this is something they want to do," says Larry Abraham, UTeach's codirector.

To accommodate the demands of multiple majors, the program is streamlined, focused, and intense. Courses and field experiences closely align with a set of guidelines called the Holistic Program Evaluation Model, which contains specific benchmarks for technology integration (for which UTeach won the International Society for Technology in Education Distinguished Achievement Award in 2002) and learner-centered instruction.

Graduation requirements include, for instance, an understanding of how technology-enhanced lessons can facilitate higher-order thinking and a demonstrated emphasis on classroom teamwork and inquiry-based activities. Candidates must submit electronic portfolios containing self-assessments, observations by master teachers, and student work samples to show they have met these objectives.

A project-based-instruction course also addresses these skills; codesigned by a professor and a master teacher, the course investigates multiple approaches to project-based learning and culminates in candidates designing and implementing their own projects with Austin-area students (including, for instance, building telescopes in a high school algebra class).

Though UTeach is still a young program, its model seems to be working. Retention rates for graduates are far above the national average: As of 2006, 80 percent of program alumni who entered teaching in fall 2002 or earlier were still teaching. Of the remaining percentage, says Marder, many stay in education, even if they've left the classroom.

Some credit likely goes to the UTeach faculty's commitment to providing cost-free support services to alumni. Master teachers are available by phone, by email, and even in person. (It is not unheard of for master teachers to book a flight to meet a UTeach graduate in his or her classroom.) An online telementoring program called Welcoming Interns and Novices with Guidance and Support (WINGS) also puts new teachers in touch with experienced mentor educators.

According to Abraham, on-the-job mentoring is so essential to a new teacher's education that UTeach cannot perform one service without the other.

Sara Bernard is a former staff writer and multimedia producer for Edutopia.

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Telescopes's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Dear Sara,

I was a science major at Bluffton college, and the one thing that really energized me about education and learning to teach was the little telescope that they had outside by the football field. I think it's a great idea for kids in math class to build a telescope. It's a great skill and it uses the education that they already have to accomplish something that they can be proud of. And it takes us back somewhat to the beginning of the scientific era... Galileo and such.

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