Kristela Garcia, UTeach graduate and teacher at John B. Connally High School in Texas, works with her students (Photo courtesy of Kristela Garcia)

Education Nation: UTeach gets Latino STEM teachers into classrooms

Rudy Lopez, a teacher at Nyos Charter School in Texas, never thought he would end up as a high school teacher. When he started college he was set on majoring in math. But all of that changed when he heard about UTeach.

“Both of my parents are teachers. I really didn’t want to teach,” Lopez says. “But then I got a pamphlet in the mail and I kind of liked it.”

UTeach is a program dedicated to increasing the number of certified STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) teacher graduates. One of the major problems facing many schools today is a shortage of qualified and effective math and science teachers. According to the National Math and Science Initiative nearly one-third of high school mathematics students and two-thirds of physical science students have teachers who did not major in the subject in college or are not certified to teach the subject.

UTeach aims to solve that problem by partnering with universities all over the country to promote STEM teaching. Students in the program get their degree in their STEM content area but also participate in a teacher preparation program which includes special courses on math and science content and teaching and extensive fieldwork. Ninety percent of UTeach graduates enter teaching and five years later, 80 percent are still in the classroom.

It was the hands-on experience that drew Lopez into the program. Lopez says that once he got in the classroom, he never came back out.

“I started out just doing math,” Lopez says. “But then I went into the program and started teaching at schools and I ended up really liking it and the feedback from the kids.”

Lopez continued to take the math classes he was interested in, but also had additional UTeach classes, where he went into classrooms to teach and observe several times a semester. That was one area that Lopez felt a more traditional career path in a STEM field would not provide.

“I think that because it had the hands on full experience of teaching I was able to test it out,” Lopez explains. “If I wanted to do the same thing in engineering, you wouldn’t really be doing what you’re supposed to be doing. To get the experience as an engineer I would have to finish school.”

Hands-on experience was the main draw of the program for Maria Negley, a UTeach graduate and a  high school teacher now in her third year at Manor New Technology school in Austin, Texas. For Negley, UTeach’s classwork-based approach combined with a supportive staff is what convinced her to stay in the program. She cites the program’s signature first course called Step 1, which provides students with teaching and lesson plan experience right from the start.

“Theres a bunch of people who leave teaching because they realize that it’s a little bit tougher than what they thought, but the program was very supportive so it was hard for me to leave,” Negley says.

UTeach also offers paid internships for their students, so that they can make career connections while working with kids.  Negley says she credits her internship with the teaching job at New Tech that she holds today.

“I was able to go into public schools and I was getting some experience. In college, math was one of my favorite subjects, and it seemed kind of natural to me,” Negley says. After interning with New Tech, Negley says they hired her right on the spot.

UTeach’s support for its students doesn’t end when they graduate. For Kristela Garcia, UTeach graduate and now teacher at John B Connally High School in Texas, UTeach’s support after graduation is unmatched. Some of the support she describes includes an education job fair, mock interviews, professional development workshops and even help with purchasing supplies for the classroom.

“There’s so many resources that they can make available to you. Other teachers are just the greatest resource. They’re also working on website where you can upload lesson plans.” Garcia says. “As long as you’re a UTeach graduate, you never stop learning.”

For Lopez, working with UTeach has meant more than just being able to teach the subject he loves; he also feels that he is making a difference for his Latino students.

RELATED: Top 25 institutions graduating Latinos in STEM fields

Twenty-nine percent of UTeach students come from Latino and African-American populations. That’s a significant number, given the disproportionately low national rate of Hispanics earning STEM certificates and degrees. According to a recent study by Excelencia in Education, Latinos earned just 8 percent of STEM degrees in 2009-2010. The number of those graduates who become teachers is even lower.

Lopez says he thinks its important for students to have teachers who are like them, especially in Texas, where he says over 50 percent of his students are Latino.

“I have access to a lot of kids,” Lopez says. “You can have more of a foot in the door when you connect with somebody.”

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