Neag School to Put More STEM Teachers in CT Urban Schools

anet McAllister, a TCPCG student teacher at Southington High School last spring, works on a hydroponics system with her environmental science students.
Janet McAllister, a TCPCG student teacher at Southington High School last spring, works on a hydroponics system with her environmental science students.

A large jump in the number of applicants to a Neag School of Education teacher preparation program means 50 more highly trained science and math teachers will enter Connecticut’s schools over the next several years. This comes at a time when both the state and nation are reporting critical teacher shortages in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics most often referred to as STEM; and just weeks after President Barack Obama’s launch of a concerted national effort to attract and prepare new STEM teachers.

Through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed by Congress last year, the National Science Foundation awarded the Neag School a $900,000 grant for a five-year proposal developed by Neag School Dean Thomas DeFranco and his Mathematics Department colleague Charles Vinsonhaler. Other UConn faculty involved in the grant includes Fabiana Cardetti of the Mathematics Department, Juliet Lee from the Department of Molecular & Cell Biology and Michael Alfano from the Neag School.

Teachers for Tomorrow, as it has been named, is a multi-pronged initiative to improve student achievement scores in mathematics and the sciences, by increasing the number of highly skilled STEM teachers working in urban classrooms. While investigating causes and remedies for the shortage of those teachers, the grant also provides financial aid for future STEM teachers, in addition to significant professional support and mentoring during their first years of teaching.

“This award validates the notion that we can collaborate with colleagues across campus to meet the challenges involved in the preparation of mathematics and science teachers in Connecticut,” says DeFranco, who, in addition to his responsibilities as dean, holds a joint appointment in the Mathematics Department.

The NSF funding comes through its Robert Noyce Scholarship Program, and the majority of the grant will be used to fund $15,000 student scholarships tied to the Neag School’s Teacher Certification Program for College Graduates (TCPCG). The one-year teacher preparation program operates at UConn’s Greater Hartford and Waterbury campuses and offers a master’s degree and certification in one year. Though it is an accelerated route to teacher certification, the 45-credit graduate level program offers students a rigorous and varied set of clinical and academic activities.

“The state’s teacher preparation institutions are responsible, in large part, for addressing the shortages and the factors leading to them,” says DeFranco. “High-quality teacher preparation programs produce highly qualified teachers, and one such program is the TCPCG.”

The teacher preparation program was developed five years ago to address the state’s critical shortages. Students spend their internship and student teaching experiences at “partner” schools in high need districts, including Hartford, East Hartford and Waterbury.

Alfano, who serves as director of the program, points out that “The TCPCG and Teachers for Tomorrow are suited for one another because they were both developed to address the state’s teacher shortages.”

For the past several decades, there has been a steady decline in the number of U.S. college students who’ve selected mathematics or a science as their major, and urban schools appear to be suffering the greatest vacancy of STEM teachers. One result, according to research literature, is that a high percentage of U.S. high school teachers are teaching core academic subjects they are not trained for. According to the Connecticut State Department of Education, during the 2007-2008 academic year, 6 percent of math teaching positions remained unfilled and another 6 percent of science positions were vacant because “no qualified person could be found to fill the position.”

Alfano expects those statistics will begin to reverse in the coming years, based on the initial response to the Teachers for Tomorrow initiative.

“Overall applications to TCPCG are up 22 percent,” he says. He is now of evaluating applicants for the incoming class that will start in May. Although economic conditions may account for some of the increase, he points out that the number of math and science applicants is “particularly impressive.”

“Compared to last year, our science applications are up 71 percent and math applications are up 50 percent.  We’d hoped that in the next five years we’d be able to put an additional 50 STEM teachers in Connecticut’s urban schools, but now it looks like we’ll easily meet that goal even earlier than expected,” he says.

The grant’s research component involves data collection and evaluation that begins from enrollment as a TCPCG STEM student into their first years as a classroom teacher. A focus of the research will be how Neag School teacher preparation graduates stack up compared with other Connecticut teachers.

Educational Expansions, a research project already underway through the Teachers for a New Era Project at UConn, has been collecting data at the elementary school level. With the data from the TCPCG STEM teachers, the UConn researchers will be able to look at the secondary level as well.

“We’ll examine the achievement on statewide exams by high school students who are pupils of our graduates, and then we’ll compare it to the performance of secondary students who are taught by non-Neag graduates,” explains Alfano. “By developing and then testing statistical models, we expect to see what, if any, differences exist.”

During their first years in the classroom, TCPCG STEM graduates will also have a network of UConn support available to them, including professional development opportunities, new teacher support and access to university expertise. The departments of Mathematics and Statistics are contributing to this effort with the Math Educator web site they’ve constructed. Teachers will be able to email questions and receive feedback about pedagogical, content or any other issues.

Next academic year, a second round of the Noyce Scholarships will be available. The TCPCG application process for both the Greater Hartford and Waterbury campuses begins in September. For more information, keep checking the website:

To become eligible for a Noyce Scholarship, applicants are required to have a bachelor’s degree, a minimum of a 3.0 GPA and be a full-time entering graduate student interested in a math or science discipline. They must commit to teach in a high-needs school for two years and be either a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.