Several members of a second-year program at The University of Texas at El Paso created to prepare the next wave of proficient science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teachers are ready to share their newfound know-how with high school pupils.
The eight students who make up the inaugural cohort of UTEP’s Noyce Scholars have been focused on Project-Based Learning (PBL), an instructional method where students actively engage in real-world and personally meaningful tasks. While this technique works well in face-to-face classes, the scholars will test how it functions in an online format as a result of COVID-19 restrictions.
Program leaders have scheduled a two-day webinar conducted by the University’s Center for Instructional Design in early August to offer ideas and support for the delivery of recorded web conferences and curriculum units about PBL. It will include how to teach with whiteboards and Microsoft PowerPoint with audio; how to create, record and caption instructional videos; and approaches to interact with groups of students in ways that encourage experiential learning and methods to find solutions to real-world issues.
One of the scholars, Katrina Villalobos, a senior education major with a concentration in mathematics grades 4-8, is eager to learn how technology will help her teach hands-on activities and is thrilled about the prospects of the program’s second year, where some of the scholars will help teach classes to Austin High School students.
“I’m really excited not only to develop authentic STEM Project-Based Learning tasks, but to learn how to implement these lessons virtually,” Villalobos said. She added that the pandemic has spurred the growth of distance learning to the point where it will continue to play a major role in education even after a coronavirus vaccine is developed. “It is imperative that all educators educate themselves and each other about effective practices, techniques and resources available.”
The University, in partnership with the El Paso Independent School District (EPISD), launched the program in 2019. It is funded by a five-year, $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program. The goal is to encourage more college students interested in STEM to become K-12 teachers.
UTEP and EPISD have worked together to develop this fresh and unique teacher preparation program that is focused on PBL and supported by the New Tech Network, a national nonprofit that promotes an alternative way to teach in public schools. The scholars benefit from the program’s theory and practice taught in University and district classrooms.
The program recruits students and prepares them for teacher certification through rigorous courses, research, activities and field-based training that will enable them to be effective educators for many years. For example, there will be research about PBL units that can be taught in dual-language settings, and on the scholars themselves to learn more about the value of professional support networks for when the scholars transition from pre-service instructors to in-service teachers.
Amy Wagler, Ph.D., associate chair in the Department of Mathematical Sciences and the program’s principal investigator, said that she and her leadership team – consultant Nora Paugh, Ph.D.; UTEP’s Jeffery Olimpo, Ph.D., assistant professor of biological sciences; and Erika Mein, Ph.D., associate dean for undergraduate studies and educator preparation in the College of Education – have continued to create courses and activities that engage the students’ natural investigative instincts and build their appreciation for professional support networks. These complement the suite of technical classes.
Wagler lamented how the pandemic slowed the program’s momentum, but was proud that those involved, especially the cohort members, adapted quickly as the University and its partners shifted to an online education format.
“Our students are focused on effective practices and on how to motivate (6th-12th grade) students,” Wagler said.
Scott Gray, EPISD’s director of new tech, secondary schools division, said that this program benefits the scholars, who learn a more student-centered approach to instruction, and the district, which hires many teachers out of the University.
Gray, a UTEP graduate who earned a bachelor’s degree in English and American Literature in 2004 and a Master of Education degree in educational administration six years later, leads his district’s “Deeper Learning” efforts. Deeper Learning refers to advanced instruction that enhances student skills such as critical thinking to improve their chances at employment in high-demand careers.
“We need to continue to partner and build a deep bench of teachers that are ready to move into the ‘Deeper Learning’ world in EPISD,” Gray said.
Mein, one of the co-PIs, said the Noyce program fits into broader College of Education teacher preparation transformation efforts that are supported by additional partners such as Raise Your Hand Texas, an agency that identifies, pilots and sustains promising ideas to improve public education, and the University-School Partnerships for the Renewal of Educator Preparation, a national organization that offers technical assistance to higher-education institutions that want to create and share best practices.
She said NSF’s participation and the focus on PBL has enhanced the University’s teacher preparation program. While COVID-19 restrictions have led to more digital learning, the PBL curriculum exposes pre-service teachers to high-leverage pedagogy in online formats.
Mein said faculty members have developed, integrated and enhanced ways to teach PBL in STEM courses. She said PBL, which involves essential questions, deliberations and collaborations to solve real-world issues, could be taught virtually with the right skills.
“The shift to online has created opportunities for our faculty and teacher candidates to learn new skills and new ways of interacting, all toward the goal of preparing excellent teachers who can work across face-to-face and online settings,” Mein said.
Program leaders have begun to accept applications for a second cohort, which could launch during the early part of the fall 2020 semester. Applications can be found on the program’s website.
Candidates should be incoming juniors with overall GPAs of at least 2.75 who are majors from the College of Science, but some consideration will be given to majors from the colleges of Education and Liberal Arts.
Scholars will receive a $10,000 stipend each year they are in the program as well as professional support and direct mentoring in their second year. Some of the program’s other benefits include access to graduate courses, NSF workshops, new research equipment, and a student teacher assignment in the one-year Miner Teacher Residency Program, which includes a stipend.
Most scholars will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field with a secondary STEM teaching certification. In return, graduates agree to work at a high-needs campus for two years.
The deadline for applications is Sept. 4, 2020.
Karina Banuelos, a senior biological sciences major with a minor in secondary education, said she has learned a lot as a Noyce Scholar and encouraged other students to consider the program because of its academic, personal and professional opportunities. The El Paso native said the program will challenge participants to reach their full potential.
“I am excited to immerse myself into the teaching environment full time with all the tools and knowledge I will have gained from the Noyce program,” said Banuelos, a first-generation college student. “As a future teacher, I learned through this program that I have to understand that at any moment everything can change, which means you need to be versatile while creating a positive environment.”
For more information about the Noyce Scholars program, contact Wagler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author: Daniel Perez – UTEP Communications