How Should We Prepare STEM Teachers?

A MiddleWeb Blog

stem_design_logoIf you are a parent, would you want your child to become a STEM educator?

I just read the results of a recent poll that made me do a double-take. The Harris poll shows that only 9% of Milwaukee parents would encourage their children to pursue STEM teaching as a career.

Instead, they would encourage their children to work as engineers, scientists, or computer/information technology analysts – but NOT as STEM teachers. Why? Parents perceived the teaching field as offering low salaries and no opportunities to move up without becoming an administrator. And 65% said that a STEM teaching career might not be worth the cost of a college education.

Do these parents have a point? Exactly what would their kids get for their money if they completed a STEM teacher preparation program? What skills and opportunities would they gain?

The answers to these questions probably vary widely across higher education. But I decided to do some research on how forward-thinking colleges and universities are preparing STEM students and STEM teachers. Basically, I wanted to know what cutting-edge STEM teacher preparation looks like.

The cutting edge UABTeach program

One program that especially caught my attention was the UTeach model out of Austin, TX. I liked what I learned about the process of recruiting STEM majors and preparing them to be teachers. Several states have implemented UTeach models and the results are definitely promising.

aj uabteach logo

In fact, there’s a UTeach model program right in my backyard! Nearby University of Alabama in Birmingham (UAB) has the UABTeach program that’s in its second year. Undergraduate students majoring in math or science can get both a rigorous subject matter degree and full teaching certification in four years at no extra cost. Engineering students can earn their degree and teacher certification in 9 semesters.

That sounds like a terrific plan to me, and it might ease those parents’ angst as well. Kids graduating from this program would have several viable options in terms of careers.

I decided to talk with Dr. Lee Meadows, the Co-Director of UABTeach, to find out more about the big ideas behind this innovative approach to teacher development. Here’s what I discovered:

[Anne] Why did UAB start this program, and what do you want it to accomplish?

aj lee meadows

Dr. Lee Meadows

[Dr. Meadows] We have a shortage of STEM teachers in Alabama. In 2014 UABTeach launched this innovative program to produce a new force of teachers who are knowledgeable and qualified in STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – and in STEM teaching methods. (See the program basics here.)

When students graduate from the program, they will have a subject matter degree in one of those STEM fields, along with full teaching certification. That gives them more career options. Graduates could go into teaching, and/or a STEM industry – in any order. They end up being able to do both – the best of both worlds.

[Anne] So how’s it going so far?

[Dr. Meadows] This program is great – amazing! Using this model, we are recruiting a whole group of students who would never have thought about science or math teaching careers before. We say, “Hey – don’t you want to add a STEM teaching certificate to your STEM degree?”

Last year (our first year) 107 students at UAB explored this STEM option. This year, they were joined by 125 additional students. Not all students are accepted to continue, and others may not want to be teachers. We expect about 50% to go forward. After two years we have 110 students active in the program and moving toward teaching.

[Anne] What about this program excites you the most?

dragon_superpower[Dr. Meadows] We are on track to graduating 40-50 new math and/or science teachers per year. That means we are on track to ending the shortage of science and math teachers in Central Alabama. And we are doing this without additional time and expense to the students if they start as freshmen. Engineers take a semester longer.

Many of our students are supported by scholarships and internships. We also provide help and support to our UAB STEM students by placing them in cohorts and providing them with assistance from mentor teachers and UABTeach Master Teachers. These master teachers continue to support students during the first two years of their teaching careers.

[Anne] I occasionally hear that some science and math teachers need more depth and understanding in their content areas. Does UABTeach address that issue?

Absolutely. The STEM teachers we are turning out have a math major, an engineering major, or a major in one of the hard sciences (chemistry, biology, biochemistry, astronomy, physics, and so on). They have strong and rigorous content knowledge. In addition, graduates have a strong knowledge base and experience with inquiry and project-based instruction.

[Anne] Are there any new additions to the UAB STEM program on the horizon?

aj image 2 uab stem students[Dr. Meadows] We’re submitting a STEM grant to fully integrate engineering design and computer science. And we hope to get it. So far we have topped $5 million in support for this program. That includes over $2.5 million in gifts from individuals and foundations.

In addition, we’re focusing on integrating science and math during STEM classroom instruction. Our inquiry methods flip back and forth between science and math within the same course, and we ask both science and math teachers to look for ways to integrate the two content areas in a STEM lesson. Our teachers are taught to collaborate from Day 1.

[Anne] What about your previous, traditional teacher education program for science and math teachers? Is that still around?

[Dr. Meadows] UAB has discontinued the old science and math education major. UABTeach is the way we will prepare future math and science teachers from here on. Please tell your readers to look at the video, What is UABTeach? on the UABTeach home page. It gives a great description of the program.

What do you think?

Anne, again. Suppose our Milwaukee parents had this kind of option for their STEM-focused kids. Do you think they would still wonder if their college education was worth the cost? Their kids will have more job options than ever, and can follow their career passion as it develops over time.

At UAB, at least, a STEM degree with teaching certification is certainly worth the cost of a college education. What’s going on with your STEM teacher preparation programs? Please share your ideas in the Comments section.


Anne Jolly’s new book, STEM by Design: Strategies and Activities for Grades 4-8, will be published in June 2016 by Routledge/Eye on Education, in partnership with MiddleWeb.

From the Amazon description: “This practical book…has all the answers and tools you need to get started or enhance your current program. Based on the author’s popular MiddleWeb blog of the same name, STEM by Design reveals the secrets to successful lessons in which students use science, math, and technology to solve real-world engineering design problems.”

Anne Jolly

Anne Jolly began her career as a lab scientist, caught the science teaching bug and was recognized as an Alabama Teacher of the Year during her long career as a middle grades science teacher. From 2007-2014 Anne was part of an NSF-funded team that developed middle grades STEM curriculum modules and teacher PD. In 2020-2021 Anne teamed with Flight Works Alabama to develop a workforce-friendly middle school curriculum and is now working on an elementary version. Her book STEM By Design: Strategies & Activities for Grades 4-8 is published by Routledge/EOE in partnership with MiddleWeb.

6 Responses

  1. Bharat says:

    I wish this program had been there when I was starting out in my Engineering career. It definitely would have been of interest to me. Now, I have 30 plus years in engineering and am about to retire; so it is not of much use now. Hopefully, the newer college freshmen will take a long hard look at this.

    • Anne Jolly says:

      I certainly understand that wish, Bharat. I would definitely have taken this road to teaching. I entered teaching from a science research field and had to get standard secondary certification. I share your hope that many freshman will possibly choose this path to engineering and/or teaching.

  2. Michele says:

    This is brilliant. I have long thought a big part of the problem with getting good STEM education was that education degrees in STEM were not as rigorous as actual degrees in a SatEM subject

    • Anne Jolly says:

      I agree – brilliant! And I agree totally with your assessment of science and math education degrees that don’t require a major in the field.

  3. Steve says:

    Looks like a needed and well thought out program. Maybe Lee can encourage other universities to look at his model.

    • Anne Jolly says:

      Actually, I believe Lee is already involved in doing that. The parent program for the UABTeach program is the UTeach program. You can Google it to see the origins.

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