Federal Grant Spurs Training of Math and Science Teachers

Chloe Jenkins-Sleczkowski

On Sept. 1 Occidental College received a $740,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) Robert Noyce grant for funding the certification of future math and science teachers, which is part of a federal effort to improve math and science skills nationwide. The grant money will go toward the one-year teaching certification program run by the Education department.

In recent years, the federal government has worked to combat the lack of math and science teachers across the country. “The federal government allocates money to the NSF, and the NSF then gives money to scientists, mathematicians and now to credentialing programs as well,” said Education Professor Adelina Alegria, who played a large role in writing the proposal and bringing the grant money to Oxy.

“We’re building on a base of knowledge, among students who have already mastered a good deal of science, and giving them the opportunity to develop their skills as teachers, with the idea that they’ll be more effective [in classrooms],” said Chemistry Professor Chris Craney, who also played an important role in developing a plan that the NSF would be willing to fund. This plan has long-term goals for improving science and math knowledge in future generations.

The goal of the NSF grant is to attract qualified and passionate teachers to fill the empty teaching spaces in math and science classrooms. “It gives enough for them to live, and work, and focus, and really have the time to become a teacher and not worry about [paying the rent],” said Michelle O’Brien, a current student in Oxy’s Master of Education program.

Alegria wrote a proposal three years ago for funding, but was rejected. “They want to have a proposal that is doable and really clean, and that really caters to the students,” she said. In redeveloping her proposal, she worked with math and science professors to create a credentialing program that emphasized clear-cut goals and student mentoring.

“Mentoring is really important for the NSF,” Alegria said. “It’s the mentoring that’s going to get you through and keep you [teaching].”

Close collaboration between departments was essential to Oxy being selected for the grant. “If we had not had that direct support between the science, math and Education departments, it would not have happened,” said Craney.

Oxy’s one-year credential program stresses both mentoring and community-based teaching. Professor Alan Knoerr of the mathematics department believes that this is part of the reason why Oxy received this grant. He said that “the strength of the college’s community-connected work, especially with local schools, also played a role.”

Oxy has longstanding ties with Eagle Rock and Lincoln High Schools as well as local elementary and middle schools. This strength of the Education department, along with the academic reputation of the college, was important to Oxy’s grant bid.

The new NSF grant money will fund only science and math graduates who wish to pursue a career in teaching, but in Oxy’s credential program previous Education classes are not a requirement. “I know there are many science and math people that don’t have time to do education courses,” said Alegria. “Unless they are given an opportunity after their BA to get it, they might not do it at all.”

“The need for science teachers at the secondary level, high school level, is acute,” said Craney. “[But] we have not educated a lot of folks in that direction for a long, long time.”

Knoerr said that the historical lack of qualified math and science teachers has caused increasing performance drops. “Because schools have not been doing a good enough job teaching these subjects, there is a shortage of people with that knowledge and those skills, and hence a shortage of those people who also train to be teachers.”

When the older teachers start to retire, schools are left with empty teaching positions. “Because there is such a need, you’re getting teachers who are really unqualified to be teaching the science and math classes,” said O’Brien. “They’re taking anyone that they can possibly get, [people] who have sometimes even minimal experience.”

Lack of financial incentives also contributes to the shortage of math and science teachers. “Teaching does not pay as well as some other professions those people can enter,” said Knoerr.

But, the NSF grant money helps students who could not previously afford to enter a credential program. “We aren’t going to have students educated if we don’t have teachers to educate them,” said Craney. “Oxy needs to be a contributor, not just an observer. Here’s a chance where we actually can make a significant contribution to many of the schools in our area.”

Craney expressed a wish to see Oxy students become personally invested in the community and help future generations learn. “We desperately need an educated populace to make the system work,” said Craney. “We don’t have enough of an actual [math and science] base to support the society that we all depend on, to make the jobs and opportunities that make this place run.”

“You can do amazing things in a classroom – students spend more time with their teachers than they do with their parents,” said O’Brien. “There’s a great opportunity to be really influential in their lives.”

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