Wanted: More science and math teachers in the US

School officials hope financial and training incentives will help fill the need for 200,000 new teachers.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Hands-on teaching: Eighth-grade science teacher Jeremy Kennefick in New Bedford, Mass., helps students Megan, Aubrie, and Indira figure out how to label the parts of a cell.
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Jeremy Kennefick and Geoffrey Gailey are both new science teachers, one a career-changer, the other fresh out of graduate school. Both are teaching in high-poverty districts, where the needs are greatest. And both are surrounded by a rare level of support – financial incentives, mentors, and groups of other new teachers to consult with as they grow in the profession.

It's no easy task to recruit people with proclivities for science into schools – and to keep them long enough to nurture a talent for teaching. But over the next decade, schools will need 200,000 or more new teachers in science and math, according to estimates by such groups as the Business-Higher Education Forum in Washington. Already, many districts face shortages: In at least 10 states, fewer than 6 out of 10 middle-school science teachers were certified when the Council of Chief School Officers compiled a report last year.

"We desperately need more qualified ... science and math teachers, because of retirement,... overcrowded classrooms ... and people teaching out of [their] field," says Angelo Collins, executive director of the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation (KSTF) in Moorestown, N.J., which offers fellowships for teachers in these fields.

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The United States is not only facing a dearth of future homegrown scientists and engineers, she and others say, but increasingly, everyday citizens need science literacy.

The programs supporting Mr. Gailey and Mr. Kennefick are small, but their approach is likely to reach a much larger scale if President-elect Barack Obama is able to carry out his education proposals. He wants 40,000 scholarships to draw undergraduates and career-changers into high-needs schools. He would put special emphasis on science and math teaching. And he's praised teacher-preparation programs that offer a high degree of mentoring.

A former mortgage loan officer, Kennefick majored in psychology and has coached youth basketball leagues. He saw science teaching as a more fulfilling option, and then happened across Teach! SouthCoast, a partnership between the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, and several school districts, including that of New Bedford, where he now teaches eighth-grade science at Normandin Middle School. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified the school sponsoring the program.]

He's receiving a $5,000 scholarship – funded by a federal grant – in exchange for teaching in the district for at least three years. Twice a week, he takes classes with a group of 20 who will earn their teaching licenses within a year.

"It's a heavy load," says Karen O'Connor, who oversees several such programs at UMASS's Center for University, School, and Community Partnerships. But the principals needed math and science teachers right away, and the new teachers have told her, "I wouldn't trade it for anything, because I could apply exactly what I was learning the very next day in my classroom." They continue to receive mentoring in their second and third years.

Strolling between desks, Kennefick takes an eighth-grade class through the key differences between plant and animal cells. "Any of you guys use aloe moisturizer? Aloe has a high content of vacuoles," he says, explaining the parts of a plant cell that store water, salts, and proteins. Soon he's got the kids working in groups to fill in a worksheet.

It's "100 percent different" from his first week of teaching, he says. "I came in thinking I would teach the same way I was taught" – by lecturing. Now, he's learning how to reach students who learn visually or through hands-on work.

Kennefick's class includes a boy excited about marine biology and a girl aspiring to be an obstetrician. It's an area where gang recruiters compete for students' attention, he says, and each day is a challenge.

Principal Jeanne Bonneau sees the benefit of Kennefick's "real world" experience. In addition to his love of science and of kids, "he has a great work ethic ... and good organizational skills," she says.

Most teachers who leave the profession do so not because of pay primarily, Ms. Collins says, but because they feel isolated, or the working conditions in their school are poor, or they start to see it as a professional dead end. In addition to tuition assistance and summer stipends, the KSTF fellowship tries to address those issues in its extra professional-development support for new teachers like Geoffrey Gailey.

He arrived at The Engineering School, a high school in Boston, with a bachelor's degree in biology and a master's degree in teaching from Cornell University. But classroom management in his biotechnology classes has been the biggest learning curve, as it usually is at the start.

To illustrate natural selection, he gave students "critters" with forks for mouths, and had them try to pick up uncooked rice. Then he gave some of them spoons, to show that the critters who could get more rice would live and pass that trait on to future generations. "My first-period class got a little out of control and there ended up being rice everywhere," he says.

Now he's reflecting on how to improve the labs to keep students focused. He can tap peers and mentors for ideas.

The KSTF fellowships can be renewed for up to five years and $150,000. Out of 128 awarded since 2002, fewer than 20 individuals have left teaching, Collins says. By comparison, about a third of new science and math teachers typically leave the profession within three years.

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