UKanTeach STEM Teacher Preparation: An innovative and experimental program changing STEM teacher preparation

Steven Case, University of Kansas

In 1998 the State of Kansas was startled into awareness of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) literacy by concerns about evolution in the Kansas K-12 Science Education Standards that were partially the result of poor public understanding of the nature and process of science. Prompted by state-wide concerns, the University of Kansas (KU) community quickly began a discussion of the essential skills and knowledge our undergraduates need to be ready to begin university work and upon graduation. In the past, the next generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians were educated without these individuals actually engaging in doing authentic scientific practice. It was very clear that scientific literacy at all levels must involve much more than learning static facts about the STEM disciplines; it must also involve the understanding and practice of the unifying practices of the scientific community, the scientific method. 

In order to move to this kind of STEM literacy, we began to explore college readiness and with it STEM teacher preparation. There are approximately 3.6 million public school K-12 teachers in 90,000 public schools in the United States with teacher preparation programs graduating more than 200,000 new teachers every year. Between 70 and 80 percent of these future teachers are enrolled in traditional programs in postsecondary institutions, while others pursue the teaching profession through approximately 130 “alternative” routes.

The UKanTeach program originated from a partnership between the KU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the KU School of Education and Kansas school districts and is coordinated by the Center for STEM Learning. Students complete their BS or BA in mathematics and/or natural science and simultaneously the UKanTeach coursework to obtain a secondary teaching license at the same time as their bachelor’s degree. UKanTeach utilizes a blended pedagogy; learning both the content discipline and the pedagogical skills required to teach the specific science and mathematics discipline. This results in and is supported by a secondary teaching field experience informed by a deep and rich content understanding. Launched in spring 2007 with support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and subsequent support by the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI), UKanTeach is now a leader in a national reform effort that has been adopted at 34 universities. The program is dramatically increasing the number of highly prepared mathematics and science teachers graduating from the University of Kansas. Figure 1 shows the total historical enrollment of the UKanTeach program since its inception.

Figure 1: The total historical enrollment of the UKanTeach program since its inception
Figure 1: The total historical enrollment of the UKanTeach program since its inception.

With six years of experience, the UKanTeach program has slightly over 100 program completers with over 80% entering secondary teaching. The first graduate/completer has completed her fourth year of mathematics teaching. To date, all of our graduates who have sought teaching positions are teaching and 100% of our UKanTeach program completers who went into teaching are still teaching. With longer experience, the UTeach program at the University of Texas at Austin finds that after seven years of teaching, 82% of the UTeach teachers are still teaching. This university-based innovative and experimental STEM teacher preparation program is now at 34 universities. A recent funding announcement from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and NMSI will bring 10 more research universities into the UTeach community. It is expected that as this community grows and additional understanding is developed, this robust, transferrable model of STEM teacher recruitment and preparation will continue to evolve and flourish.

The UKanTeach program was founded because of a shortage of highly qualified mathematics and science teachers in Kansas. An aging teacher workforce, early retirement and poor retention of new teachers combined with insufficient production of new secondary science and math teachers to create a perfect storm.

The Kansas economy requires well-prepared citizen STEM workers. Wichita manufactures 70% of the world's general aviation aircraft. The Kansas City metropolitan area is a center of automobile production and printing. Metal fabrication, printing, and mineral products industries predominate in southern Kansas and Kansas continues to lead in agricultural production. Well-prepared workers are innovators in their fields; they fuel innovations in energy, biotechnology, manufacturing, aviation and agriculture that drive the region’s economic engine.

The UKanTeach program at the KU is designed to improve the learning and teaching of all STEM undergraduate students. It is not intended as solely a teacher preparation program, but also to offer additional options to all STEM graduates. The program centers on developing critical scientific literacy through specific science education programs, curriculums and research-based teaching. While UKanTeach is an undergraduate program, teacher professional development must continue through all stages of a teacher’s career: from recruitment through retirement. Undergraduate STEM teacher preparation must be designed as only one part of an ongoing continuum of teaching and learning. This recognition changed the nature of our teacher preparation program. Students are recruited to UKanTeach with the idea that secondary STEM teaching is a career option for all STEM majors. STEM workers should be able to move back and forth seamlessly between a variety of STEM-related jobs, including teaching. STEM teaching is a hard job; being an effective STEM teacher may be one of the most challenging jobs in STEM.

UKanTeach is an innovative and experimental STEM Teacher Preparation program. Built on the successful practices of the UTeach program at the University of Texas-Austin and combined with innovations established by the UKanTeach faculty and staff, the program has created a unique model that meets the needs of our STEM students and the needs of the regional community. The critical program elements of UKanTeach include:
  • A carefully planned set of degree requirements across all disciplines in the program that avoids unwarranted content duplication.
  • An intense, hands-on coaching model engaging students from initial recruitment including induction support, in-service professional development, and ongoing support throughout their career.
  • A very strong advising, tracking, and academic support program managed by dedicated teaching professionals.
  • Early and frequent field experiences that lead to a capstone student teaching experience.
  • Clinical faculty, master teachers who are experts in teaching, who work with the students throughout their program.
  • An engaged partnership with regional STEM classroom teachers and clearly developed partnerships with regional school districts which provide advice, field placements, and teaching positions for UKanTeach graduates.

The interconnected nature of these program elements is the primary driver of both the innovations and successes of the program. The combination of the UTeach critical program elements and UKanTeach program innovations has been recognized as a Promising Practice by the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, Science and Math Teacher Imperative. 

This integrated program has led to impressive outcomes for our students. The UKanTeach program follows its students very closely. To date, of the UKanTeach students who have taken the Praxis PLT (pedagogy) test, 22% earned a score that ranks them within the top 15% of all test takers who have taken this assessment in previous years; of the UKanTeach students who have taken the Praxis Content test in their disciplines, 35% earned a score that ranks them within the top 15% of all test takers who took this STEM discipline assessment in previous years. In the fall of 2010, the Kansas Department of Education launched the Kansas Performance Teaching Portfolio (KPTP) an extensive teaching performance evaluation completed during student teaching. Of the UKanTeach students who have taken the KPTP, 35% have earned exemplary scores with one student achieving a perfect score. These graduates are superbly prepared for the first day of teaching and recognize the importance of ongoing learning within their discipline.

The heart and soul of the UKanTeach program is two courses: Research Methods and Project-Based Instruction. Research Methods engages students in a scaffolded undergraduate research experience in their discipline. It is our belief that engaging students in the scientific process, with guided reflection on the process, will allow students to learn the process and nature of science while also improving discipline-specific content knowledge. In recent discussions about new workers at a biotechnology company, the most important skill required by the lab director was the ability to think: the central skill developed by undergraduate research. Engaging undergraduates in research provides training that they don't receive in traditional science courses such as practice with deep critical thinking, research ethics, oral and written communication skills and information literacy. For students in the program who are going on to graduate school or directly to the STEM workforce, these are highly transferable intellectual and communication skills.

The Research Methods course is supported by another UKanTeach course, Perspectives in Science and Mathematics. This unique course is a blend of philosophy and history that gives the students a way to reflect on the nature and process of science while they are engaged in their research. They learn that research is a process of careful inquiry that leads to the discovery of new information.

UKanTeach students who go on to become secondary science teachers are well versed in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) that establish learning expectations for students including interacting  disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts. Research Methods provides a learning experience that integrates these important cross-cutting themes.

Project-Based Instruction extends the undergraduate research experience to the secondary teacher’s instructional practice; they learn how to be the research director for over one hundred secondary students. Directing research requires very different skills if teachers are to engage adolescent, novice learners in middle school and high school in meaningful authentic research. To examine real-world problems as scientists examine research problems is critical to the STEM literacy that we seek for all citizens.

The changes in STEM teaching and learning supported by the UKanTeach program affect secondary students and their readiness for post-secondary experience. They also bring a major change in the nature of undergraduate STEM education. The grand vision of the UKanTeach program is to respond to our STEM literacy challenges by moving the needle on STEM literacy. The UKanTeach program is a part of a national experiment in STEM teacher preparation in which the early results are very encouraging and indicate that these program innovations are returning very positive results.

Steven B. Case Ph.D. is the Director of the Center for STEM Learning at the University of Kansas. He has worked to establish STEM Literacy at all academic levels, including the establishment of the UKanTeach program at KU.

Disclaimer–The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.