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Those Who Can, Do: Math and science teacher prep program becomes national model, celebrates 10th birthday

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If five freshman math majors with 12 possible career choices are traveling north on campus at a rate of two mph, against a powerful 40 mph wind, what percentage of those math majors will decide they want to become teachers rather than work in a cubicle at General Mills? And x must equal 283,000 new math and science teachers in the U.S. by the year 2015.

A determined and very, very intelligent person, or five, might hatch a promising solution to the teacher shortage, but only if they attacked the problem from a novel angle.

“The UTeach program explodes the myth that math and science majors at major universities are not interested in becoming teachers.”

—Dean Mary Ann Rankin, College of Natural Sciences

If there’s a severe math and science teacher deficit—one that’s been defined as a “crisis” by everyone from the President to corporate leaders, policy analysts and parents—why not see if talented undergraduate college students who plan to be engineers, doctors, biochemists, botanists and researchers would like to teach middle school or high school instead? What if there are smart, ambitious, creative young minds who simply never considered the teaching field and who may fall in love with it when introduced? What if we can offer them teacher certification without adding time to their degree, interfering with their intended major or delaying graduation?

This was the idea developed by The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Natural Sciences and College of Education back in 1997, and, 10 years later, the result—a math and science teacher preparation program called UTeach—is a national model that’s producing about 75 new, highly qualified teachers annually. The idea works.

For those unfamiliar with teacher preparation, the excellence of UTeach may be more apparent if we resort to a cooking analogy. In an ideal world, every chocolate crème brulee you enjoyed would be prepared by French pastry chef Jacque Torres, and he would use only the richest, freshest cream from the udder of a grain-fed, free-range cow, plump fragrant pesticide-free vanilla beans and nothing less than chopped French Valrhona dark chocolate.

The entire undertaking would reflect attention to detail, a refusal to cut corners or compromise, the employment of quality parts, an insistence on skill in technique and a straightforward approach that’s been proven successful. UTeach is the Torres-crafted chocolate crème brulee.

Teaching By the Numbers
  • Two-thirds of UTeach graduates teach in major Texas cities.
  • About 45 percent of graduates teach in schools where 40 percent of their students are from low-income families.
  • More than 85 percent of UTeach students have gone on to become teachers.
  • About 25 percent of UTeach students are from traditionally underrepresented minority groups.

The program appeals to and nurtures many of the most gifted students. It prepares them for success in real classrooms in real schools where the majority of their students may be from low-income families. It piques and stretches the future teachers’ minds so that they can challenge their students and meet the needs of a wide variety of learners. It gives them a sense of community and professional pride.

With an overall goal of not just doing something but doing it right, UTeach presents a powerful incentive to undergraduates entering the College of Natural Sciences. All students who enter the college are invited to join the program and offered the first two UTeach courses free of charge. If they opt in, students immediately are introduced to a real classroom setting at an Austin-area elementary school and are teaching their first lesson to a class full of students in the first six weeks of the semester. As Dr. Mary Ann Rankin, dean of the College Natural Sciences, says, “We want students to teach who fall in love with it, not just with the idea of it.”

In close partnership with the Austin Independent School District (AISD), and under the guidance of hundreds of seasoned AISD teachers and five UTeach master teachers, students spend time during five semesters observing and participating in the operations of an actual classroom. This gives them several chances to test-drive the innovative teaching methods that they’ve learned.

The UTeach classes are particularly effective because they not only convey information about the most current and successful teaching methods, but also are taught using those methods. All of the classes involve inquiry instruction that gets students actively involved in teaching science and math and learning strategies they later will use to engage their middle and high school students.

“Teaching UTeach classes has been very challenging as well as very rewarding for me,” says Dr. Michael Marder, a professor of physics in the College of Natural Sciences and co-director of UTeach. “I don’t think you can sit students in a row and give them a lecture three times a week on why they should not teach using lectures.”

Larry Abraham and Michael Marder
UTeach co-directors Dr. Larry Abraham (left)
and Dr. Michael Marder

If a class is learning about multiplication, for example, balls, blocks or dice could be used to stimulate students’ higher-level thinking skills and encourage them to discover what the concept of “multiplication” actually means. The teacher might tell the students to arrange their blocks into three groups of six and then into six groups of three and two groups of nine. The instructor could prompt students to describe what is happening—all groups equal 18!—then put students in pairs to create word problems using the multiplication concepts they’ve figured out.

As they learn to be great teachers, UTeach students have some of the very best human resources at their disposal. The master teachers in the program are top-notch former secondary teachers who have been hired by The University of Texas at Austin to act as advisers to UTeach students, teach pedagogy courses and supervise students in their internships and classroom field experiences.

Mentor teachers who are employed in Austin-area classrooms coach student teachers, electronically collaborate with students on the creation of lesson plans, offer formal evaluations of student-led lessons and are guest lecturers in UTeach courses. Science and math education faculty from the College of Education teach a sequence of courses which are specifically designed to give future teachers deep pedagogical content knowledge, expertise in instructional technology and an understanding of the social and cultural factors affecting public education today.

“The early and frequent field experiences, additional paid internships that are relevant to their teaching field and exposure to some of the best teachers in the state give students repeated opportunities to decide if teaching really is right for them,” says Dr. Manuel J. Justiz, dean of the College of Education. “After they graduate, the transition to a classroom of their own is so much easier.”


UTeach started at The University of Texas at Austin in 1997 as a new way to introduce science and math majors to teaching.

UTeach has proven to be so effective that it is now being replicated at universities across the United States.

Watch a video and read a brochure to experience the innovative UTeach program.

In addition to recruiting freshmen in the College of Natural Sciences, UTeach also accepts students who are farther along in their degree plan. Customized course sequences accommodate sophomores, juniors and seniors as well as individuals who already have a degree and are returning to college for teacher certification in secondary math or science. Ongoing support also is available once the novice teachers have graduated and are in teaching positions.

Most students who graduate from UTeach do so within four years, leaving The University of Texas at Austin with a degree from the College of Natural Sciences and recommendation for state teacher certification from the College of Education. With 480 students in UTeach right now, it’s one of the largest programs of its kind at any research university in the country. More than 60 percent of UTeach students graduate, which is well above the overall College of Natural Sciences graduation rate.

Building on the success of UTeach Natural Sciences, seven years ago The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Liberal Arts developed a parallel UTeach program and has graduated more than 300 secondary English, history, language and social studies teachers since 2003.

And there’s even more good news.

Universities around the nation are vying for grants to duplicate UTeach Natural Sciences on their own campuses. The UTeach Institute has been created to help establish program models on 10 other campuses, and the Texas High School Project and National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) are supporting the effort. ExxonMobil, recognizing the program’s efficacy, donated about $30 million this year to NMSI in support of the replication process.

The program has been praised by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and the National Research Council, cited by TIME magazine as a promising remedy to the nation’s declining competitiveness in the global arena and endorsed by the National Academy of Sciences as one of the 10 most important initiatives the U.S. can undertake to improve science and technology in the next century.

Julie McPhail
UTeach student Julie McPhail

Proving the well-known maxim that if you build a better mousetrap grants will beat a path to your door, benefactors like Microsoft Corporation, SBC Foundation, RGK Foundation, AT&T Inc. Foundation, the Houston Endowment, National Science Foundation and the Kodosky Foundation have blessed UTeach with generous funding.

Money given to the program has been a smart investment, with more than 85 percent of UTeach graduates going on to enter teaching and about 70 percent still teaching after five years—the average retention rate nationally is 50 percent. Principals are thrilled to get high-quality teachers for high-need subject areas and, after hiring their first UTeach graduate, they’re returning to the program and asking for more.

UTeach has doubled the number of University of Texas at Austin students graduating with secondary math and science teacher certification.

“Every single little detail about UTeach is phenomenal,” says Julie McPhail, a National Merit Scholar who opted for UTeach at the end of her freshman year and who will be graduating this December. “It sounds corny, but from the very first class that I took I knew I was in love. If you want a rigorous academic program it definitely satisfies your needs, and you’re challenged at multiple levels. What’s even more gratifying, though, is the warm, collegial, family atmosphere and the personal attention you get from some of the best instructors on campus. You’re nurtured, and you feel you’re one of the elite—the cream of the crop.

“Hundreds of years ago people were convinced the earth was flat, and they had very good science to back them up. Just think about how much we could be wrong about right now, how many theories there are to test, scientific mysteries to explore and fascinating problems to solve. We’ll always be discovering something new and, as a teacher, I think that’s so exciting!”

—Julie McPhail, UTeach student

“You have the top professors from the College of Education teaching you how to teach and showing you solid research to back up their techniques. Then you have subject area experts from the College of Natural Sciences who are giving you a seriously deep understanding of theories, history and strategies that will help you help your students be prepared to move right on into college. And they’re all absolutely on fire. I love that the program is the perfect mix of passion and practicality.”

McPhail’s enthusiasm is typical of UTeach students and graduates, and it’s a spark that’s ignited the program’s phenomenal success for a decade.

“We have so many confident, skilled, committed UTeach graduates in school districts all over the state and nation,” says Dr. Larry Abraham, UTeach co-director and chair of the College of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction, “and it’s fitting that we celebrate their achievements, as well as the hard work of our faculty and staff, with a 10th anniversary gala. This anniversary reunion is going to be an occasion for the graduates, current participants and supporters of the program to meet and greet old and new friends, share war stories and give us feedback on how things are going out in the schools.”

The UTeach 10th Anniversary Reunion is Sat., Nov. 17, and will feature a picnic, science and math puzzles and games for children, live music and breakout sessions by teaching subject area and grade level. The highlight of the celebration will be a town hall meeting, moderated by Texas Monthly editor Evan Smith, at which a panel of UTeach graduates will discuss and answer questions about the challenges and rewards of teaching. Former astronaut and long-time education advocate Bernard A. Harris Jr. will be keynote speaker.

“When I was 10 years old,” says McPhail, “a member of my extended family told me I was too smart to be a teacher and that I needed to become something else. I guess all I can say about that is, here I am at 21, realizing that I’m too smart not to become a teacher.”

By Kay Randall

Photos of Drs. Larry Abraham and Michael Marder
and Julie McPhail: Christina Murrey

Banner/lead photo courtesy UTeach

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  Updated 18 December 2007
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