It’s not a requirement for a science teacher to have a background in science, and many schools will hire unqualified teachers when teaching positions need to be filled. Yet, when schools hire teachers with no previous experience in the main subject they teach, it knocks the school down on overall competency.
According to the Experiencing Science Practices through Research to Inspire Teaching Program contract University of Oregon undergraduate scholars sign, if 34 percent or more of teachers in a school don’t have a major in the subject they teach, the school is declared high needs. Other factors that could make a school high needs include if 50 percent or more of students are eligible for full or partially pay-reduced lunches, or if there’s a teacher turnover rate of 15 percent or more every three years.
The National Science Foundation’s Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship funds collegiate programs to encourage more undergraduate science students to teach science or math at high-need middle schools and high schools. ESPRIT admitted three undergrad science students for its second year of the program: biology and Spanish major Elizabeth Bryan, physics major Jordyn Mons and biology major Everette Somers.
“Have you ever heard the saying, ‘Those who can, do; Those who can’t, teach’? This phrase is used to undermine and disparage the work of educators from all disciplines,” Somers said. “By having substantial, rigorous experience in my field, I believe this will help to dispel the myth of teachers being overall underqualified.”
The ESPRIT Program, according to the umbrella Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Career through Outreach, Research and Education site, is open to any undergrad science majors interested in teaching. During the second half of their time as undergrads, ESPRIT scholars must complete education studies courses in the middle school and high school education program to learn more about different teaching techniques to engage students. The three women attended seminars geared to improve their science communications skills.
The ESPRIT Program also requires scholars to engage in an ESPRIT-sponsored summer research experience. Mons worked in the Ursell Lab at UO modeling the movements of a bacteria community. She was even included in a research paper byline for her work.
ESPRIT scholars can apply for a $10,000 scholarship under the requirement that they’ll move to the year-long UOTeach masters-level teacher licensure program upon graduation. Once they begin their studies at UOTeach, ESPRIT participants can apply for a $22,000 scholarship.
These scholarships are available with the assurance that participants will teach science or math for four years in a high-need school district within seven years after graduating from UOTeach. If they don’t complete these four years, the scholarship amounts become loans.
This past February, the three undergrads and two ESPRIT scholars currently earning their UOTeach masters, Erika Flockoi and Halli Roussell, attended a National Science Foundation conference for Noyce scholars in Tucson, Arizona.
“It was such an enriching and eye-opening experience, and I learned a lot from the many faculty members, current teachers and fellow scholars who attended the conference, especially about culturally responsive science education,” Somers said.
When Bryan stumbled upon the ESPRIT Program, she was surprised that she didn’t know about it earlier and that more students hadn’t applied. Mons, who had heard about the program through a class announcement, said students might be intimidated to apply because the program requires science undergrads to commit to a career plan their sophomore or junior year.
“Many don’t know what they want to do after they finish their four-year degree, so there’s a little bit of pressure to know that you want to be a teacher for sure,” Mons said.
The women are excited to start UOTeach in the fall and inspire kids to explore science. Somers thinks it’s important for teachers to have a background in the subject they teach because it gives students an up-close experience with someone who has worked in the field them self. This is especially important when the average U.S. scientist doesn’t look like the average U.S. teenager.
“I want my students to see me as both a teacher and a scientist,” Somers said. “Especially in a world where women and minorities are grossly underrepresented in most scientific fields, I think it is important for students to interact with scientists who they can identify with.”
According to a 2016 report by the U.S. Census, 43 of the 129 Oregon school districts are ranked as high needs. Because Bryan, Mons and Somers will earn Oregon teaching degrees and all three of them are Oregon natives, they plan to work in Oregon high-needs school districts.
According to the STEM CORE site, the ESPRIT emphasizes encouraging a passion of science in the classroom. The women all say they plan to work in and out of the classroom to get students to explore and experiment. Mons wants to help mentor student clubs if the option becomes available. She’s particularly interested in starting an astronomy club if there isn’t one where she goes to teach. On the side, Mons would also like to make sure they had a good music program, being a music lover and a former member of the Oregon Marching Band herself.
“I think the arts and sciences are really important in schools,” Mons said.
Somers plans to instill environmental stewardship in her students. Bryan wants to engage students’ critical thinking skills. The women want to include field trips and community engagement opportunities.
“You — as a teacher — are a resource. But there are a lot of other resources in the community that you have got to figure out how to bring into your classroom, like outside science camps and local universities,” Mons said.
Bryan, Mons and Somers also recognize there will be some more challenging aspects to their future jobs. Mons admitted it might be extra challenging to produce hands-on learning opportunities if there’s a lack of budget or lab equipment at the school. Like many teachers, all of the women are excited and apprehensive about fitting in opportunities for kids to investigate and explore with learning curriculum requirements.
“A lot of teachers think that there isn’t a lot of time to be doing open-ended, inquiry-based labs because there’s so much material they need to fit in before the test. But on the other hand, some things like the Next Generation Science Standards that have come out have a strong focus on doing labs, mathematical modeling and engineering,” Bryan said. “I feel like there are always issues, but I hope stuff will work out.”
Bryan and Somers say they love teaching, but they do want to keep their options open in the future after they have completed all the ESPRIT requirements. Mons knows that she wants to teach science and math for her career based on previous teaching and outreach experiences she’s had through UO’sScience Program to Inspire Creativity and Excellence.
“I felt happy being in a classroom and working with students, and even though I did enjoy research, it’s not to the same extent,” Mons said. “I liked that when I would come home from doing an outreach event or something like that. I just felt really happy and positive.”