University of Vermont

University Communications

Scholarship Program Boosts Future Science, Math Teachers

Release Date: 12-07-2010

Author: Jeffrey R. Wakefield
Phone: 802-656-2005 Fax: (802) 656-3203

One year into Cornell's highly ranked chemistry Ph.D. program, earning a generous stipend to boot, Michael Coleman should have been on top of the world.

But to his surprise, the Long Island University graduate found it wasn't his research and coursework that he was passionate about, but his duties as a TA supervising undergraduate teaching labs and advising students in his office.

After a period of soul-searching, he decided to leave the prestigious program to pursue a career as a high school science teacher.

Cornell's loss has been science teaching's -- and UVM's -- gain. This fall Coleman enrolled in the university's Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program as one of UVM's first Robert Noyce Scholars.

The Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship program, named for the Silicon Valley pioneer who invented the microchip, is funded by the National Science Foundation, which launched the initiative in 2002 to address the country's critical shortage of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teachers and to boost the number of K-12 teachers with strong STEM content knowledge.

The program offers scholarships to college graduates like Coleman who majored in a STEM discipline -- often working professionals -- as well as to undergraduate STEM majors. Students use the scholarships to pursue either graduate or undergraduate education degrees and agree to teach two years in a high-need school, where the STEM teacher shortage is especially acute, for every year of funding they receive.

Graduate students typically enroll in a one-year program like UVM's and receive a $12,500 scholarship. Undergraduates receive scholarships in that amount during both their junior and senior years.

Last year UVM won a five-year, $896,000 Noyce Scholars grant from the NSF, joining 274 other schools, and enrolled its first five graduate students, including Coleman, this fall. To date it has attracted one undergraduate, a junior chemistry major who will defer her scholarship to her senior year and then enroll in the MAT program. Administrators hope to enroll an average of three graduate students and three undergraduates per year.

"Bringing more content experts to STEM classrooms is a critical national priority, and we're proud to be part of this strategic initiative," said Regina Toolin, assistant professor of education and principal investigator on the grant.  "At UVM we're building on the content strengths of our Noyce Scholars by giving them the teaching skills to engage students in inquiry and problem-solving, which are the essence of good science teaching."

Rory Waterman, assistant professor of chemistry, and Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux, associate professor of geography, are co-principal investigators. The team wrote the winning grant application together.

In addition to the traditional grant program, UVM also applied for a competitive new feature of the Noyce Scholars program that NSF introduced in 2008: a 10-week, paid research internship for first- and second-year undergraduate science majors, designed in part to create a pool from which the program can recruit. NSF funded the internship program, which Waterman directs, as part of UVM's overall award. Eight students participated last summer.

"It's an opportunity to do real science," Waterman said, "but at the same time show students you can do something other than being a scientist" with a STEM degree.

Noyce Scholars in the UVM's MAT program take courses in the secondary science concentration and are placed in high schools in Vermont, observing teacher/mentors in the fall and student teaching five days a week in the spring. Undergraduates continue their science studies but supplement them with education courses and student teaching assignments, graduating with a degree in secondary science education.

Change agents

UVM's Noyce Scholars also participate in a wide-ranging monthly seminar meant to offer technical support for the future teachers. In October, students had a behind-the-scenes tour of Burlington's ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center, and heard a presentation there from a highly regarded science teacher from the Vermont Commons School, a charter school in South Burlington. Last month student learned how to use a computer modeling program called STELLA.

"The seminars give them some exposure to advanced skills to be those innovative change agents" the Noyce program is meant to produce, said Rob Skiff, a UVM doctoral student and co-founder of the Vermont Commons Schools who is providing support for the program.

Noyce scholars also receive stipends to attend science teacher conferences and advice and counsel from Toolin, Skiff, and others on landing a teaching job in a high-need school. The majority of these schools, Skiff said, are ones that fall below a threshold of teachers with sufficient college course work in the discipline they teach -- a problem the Noyce Scholars program addresses directly.

As for Coleman, he couldn't be happier. His education courses are a compelling tabula rasa for the chemist, and he finds working with teachers at Mt. Abraham Union High School in Bristol, where he's observing this fall and will be teaching in the spring, to be a "huge plus."

He found the presentation made by Vermont Commons biology teacher Peter Goff at the ECHO Museum to be particularly inspiring.

"It was so much more than just work sheets; they were doing real projects and working on real issues," he said. The process creates "better students, and better people, really. I'm excited to be a teacher when I see that."