Now, a coalition of Northwest Florida higher education institutions is working to attack the problem at its root by increasing the number of middle and high school teachers in science, technology, engineering and math, commonly referred to as “STEM” fields.
The project – led by Drs. John Pecore and Jaromy Kuhl, of the University of West Florida – will involve faculty from Pensacola State College and Northwest Florida State College, as well as a half-dozen science learning centers and the Escambia, Okaloosa and Walton County school districts.
The work is made possible by a $125,000 grant awarded last month from the National Science Foundation. Pecore said the funding would allow him and his colleagues to step up recruitment and mentoring of STEM students interested in pursuing careers in secondary STEM education.
“The idea is to get the best and the brightest,” Pecore said. “We want to reach students with an interest in STEM fields early and help them to explore teaching as a career path.”
Ultimately, Pecore hopes their answer will be “yes.” The reinforcements are sorely needed. In the 2012-13 school year, the state was short 124 science and 118 math teachers, according to the Florida Department of Education, and those numbers are only expected to increase in coming years.
Equally as troubling to Pecore is the high rate of teacher turnover. Nationwide, 40 to 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within their first year of being in the classroom, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education.
Both staff turnover and the shortage of STEM educators are especially acute problems in Northwest Florida, where most students attend high-needs schools in urban or rural areas.
Pecore said the National Science Foundation grant will help reverse these trends in at least two ways: by providing early field experiences for students to self-determine their interest in a teaching career, and by supporting those who do pursue teaching with mentoring to make it through the challenges of first-year teaching.
“We want to recruit and assist students who are passionate about teaching and want to make a difference in students’ lives,” he said.
In order to do that, the group will develop a new recruitment course, “Exploring Inquiry Teaching,” that will be offered by participating institutions starting next summer. The course, which will be targeted to incoming freshmen and sophomores, as well as dual-enrolled high schoolers, will provide students with teaching experience in partnering school district classrooms and science learning centers.
“My hope is that the early teaching experience and mentoring will help students to make an informed decision about pursuing a career in education early in their undergraduate program,” said Pecore.
UWF education faculty will also work with the College of Science and Engineering to develop a new degree track that would allow students in STEM fields minoring in education to obtain a professional teaching certification after graduating. Currently, graduates are only eligible for a temporary, three-year certification.
“This capacity building grant provides the foundation for recruiting more students to pursue careers in STEM education and lays the groundwork for additional opportunities, such as the National Science Foundation NOYCE Phase 1 Scholarship grant,” said Pecore. “The scholarship grant, if awarded, would create up to $1.45 million in scholarships for students pursuing careers as STEM educators in high-needs school districts.”