Chris Cutler is a rare breed of college student in Georgia.
He’s a physics major who wants to teach at a rural high school when he graduates from Augusta State University.
“You just don’t have as many teachers coming out of college that have that area of focus,” said Matt Cardoza, the communications director for the Georgia Department of Education. “Especially those science and math teachers – they are very difficult to find.”
To produce more science, technology, engineering and math – or STEM – kindergarten-12th grade teachers, ASU is giving scholarships to students who agree to teach for two years in high-needs schools after graduation. Funding comes from a $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation called the Program for Recruiting and Educating STEM Teachers With Integrated Graduate Enrollment.
The program’s scholars are selected as juniors and earn a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field and a master’s of art in teaching in five years.
“We want to make the students want to be a teacher, but also make them understand the day-to-day and what it requires,” said Steven Page, an assistant professor in the department of education and the program’s coordinator.
Students receive $15,000 a year in scholarship money, must complete 300 hours of classroom observations and must participate in a teaching practicum their last semester.
Despite the incentive, Page said it has been difficult to get juniors to enter the program.
The program began in spring 2011, and ASU could offer scholarships to up to six students a year for three years. In the first two years it filled seven of the 12 available slots. Page said he hopes to boost interest for 2013 but will follow a strict screening to ensure quality.
“The success of the program is more important than the numbers in the program, so we are very selective,” he said. “They have to want it.”
Over the past few years, educators across the country have stressed a need to change American students’ global lag in math and science. In 2010, President Obama announced a goal to recruit 10,000 more STEM teachers by 2012 and 100,000 over the next decade.
Marilyn Gardner, the director of communications for the American Association of Physics Teachers, said interest in STEM education has dropped, mostly because of attitudes about low teacher salaries.
The shortage has forced many schools to assign teachers to physics classes who do not have a degree in the subject, Gardner said.
The country has phased into a lack of focus on the sciences, which affects decisions and progress made in all sectors, she said.
“We have a lot of people who don’t really understand that much about science going out into the world, and maybe they’re becoming congressmen and they’re making decisions based on things that really require basic scientific knowledge,” she said.
Coordinators of the recruiting program said one goal is to make moving into STEM education easier.
Maira Acosta, a physics junior at ASU, said she always thought about being a teacher but found an easy path to get there when she saw a flier for the program. She said she has seen other physics majors pass up the teaching field for other speciality jobs in labs or research.
But she said teaching is something special.
“I love the application of physics,” Acosta said. “It’s not just numbers on a board. And once I started tutoring, I realized I wanted to teach it.”