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When UT Austin’s College of Education and College of Natural Sciences created the teacher preparation program UTeach, they never dreamed that the President of the United States would be applauding it as one of the best ways to help students excel in math and science.

Since its launch in 1997, the award-winning UTeach program has graduated 878 of the brightest secondary science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teachers, enjoyed commendations for its successful public-private partnerships, and been adopted at 39 universities nationwide (with five more slated to begin replication before the end of the year).

“One major strength of UTeach is that we make sure our students have an exceptionally strong grasp of the content they’ll be teaching,” said Larry Abraham, UTeach co-director and professor in the College of Education’s Department of Kinesiology and Health Education. “Our students are required to actually earn a degree in the subject they’ll be teaching, whether it’s math, science, or engineering. They’re sitting in the same classes, mastering the same challenging material as students who will become biomedical engineers, physicians, or chief technology officers.”

When UTeach students graduate, Abraham said, they’re fully prepared to take on a variety of challenging careers, from medicine to NASA research, or to pursue graduate school.

Despite a wealth of choices, about 90 percent of UTeach students elect to enter teaching, and five years after entering the field, 80 percent of UTeach graduates are still teaching.

In addition to being seriously well prepared in STEM content areas, UTeach students complete a carefully designed sequence of classroom experiences that immerse them in “real life” teaching. Before they enter a classroom, clinical faculty with years of teaching experience help prepare the students for their in-school field experiences. While in the classroom, they’re able to work closely with seasoned mentor teachers who model best pedagogical practices.

“What makes UTeach different, and in a good way, is that we place students in secondary school classrooms from the very first course they take and give them a chance to teach lessons from the outset,” said Abraham. “Their first two semesters of the program are funded through scholarships, in fact, and are meant to let them see, at no cost to them, if the career is a good fit. If it’s not, they simply leave UTeach and continue to work on their degree.”

Although UTeach instructors don’t require students to adopt a particular teaching strategy, they give them ample opportunities to observe and practice an approach called project-/inquiry-based instruction.

With inquiry-based learning, students are given a problem to solve and, in order to do that they must discover and incorporate any number of key math and science concepts like speed, aerodynamics, fractions, or trajectory. They are freed to pursue answers through independent research, discussion, and hands-on activities.

Another motivator for students is that the problem is placed in a narrative context or scenario that’s likely to be relevant and naturally interesting to them, so the learning feels less like work and more like an adventure.

This method of instruction is demonstrated to UTeach students by some of the best area middle and high school STEM teachers, as well as UTeach professors.

“UTeach was one of the first programs of its kind in the nation to have a course specifically designed around project-based learning,” said Abraham, “and we were very early adopters when it came to integrating math, science, and technology, rather than using a silo approach that prepares STEM teachers for only one discipline.”

To foster that integration, UTeach math and science students take the same teacher preparation courses. Everyone learns physics; everyone learns biology; and everyone learns algebra.

“Just think about it, in middle and high school science classes, a lot of the problems that students run into have to do with math,” said Abraham. “Sometimes they’re just not up to speed. If the science teacher has studied how people learn math, though, he or she can spot when a child is having a problem and more effectively provide support.

“With math teachers, if they learn about teaching several different areas of science, their teaching becomes richer because they have an endless supply of real-world problems and scenarios to use in their lessons. This can help students understand bigger math concepts and grasp that learning is about more than one right answer.”

Having UTeach students work in multi-disciplinary teams has seeded an interest in them to interact across disciplines once they become teachers.

In addition to engaging excellent instructors, one of the most significant benefits of the UTeach program is that it’s streamlined and efficient. Despite adding UTeach coursework to their regular STEM degree requirements, students’ degree completion time is not extended. It’s also appealing because, in addition to welcoming undergraduates, UTeach admits qualified professionals with existing degrees who are returning to school. They can take the UTeach coursework and, if they pass, become certified as STEM teachers in around three semesters.

Since it began, UTeach has expanded its resources and services to include professional development for graduates, an elementary teacher preparation program called Hands-On Science, a national alumni network, scholarships and internships, and a community outreach program.

The program itself has been replicated by UT Austin’s College of Liberal Arts, and the College of Education recently formed UTeach Urban Teachers, which is the newest UTeach option. It’s specifically designed for educators passionate about social justice in diverse urban classrooms.

“Our students leave UTeach with a rock-solid degree and many options,” said Abraham. “Fortunately, most of them choose to teach, to do something that makes them feel good and has meaning. You hear a lot about ‘transformational programs’ – some are and some aren’t. UTeach has turned out to be one that truly is.”

-Photos by Mark Tway