The lectern at the front of Allison Nickel’s freshman high school math class often stood empty. Nickel’s teacher, Susan Boyd, was busy showing her students that math could be fun. Boyd’s official teaching position seemed to be in the corner of the room – at her piano. It was there, at Abilene High School, where she often sat to teach algebra equations she set to the tune of well-known melodies. Nickel’s favorite was the quadratic equation sung to “Pop Goes the Weasel.”
“I’ll never forget that formula. I just loved that class – she made math exciting,” said Nickel, now a math major and education minor at TCU, who will teach high school algebra or geometry when she graduates.
Students like Nickel, who are eager to teach math or science at a middle or high school, are in high demand in Fort Worth and all across the country. American education has been faced with a chronic shortage of science and math teachers. Experts say they are in need now more than ever, and the problem doesn’t seem to be disappearing soon. Large corporations like IBM have recently taken giant steps to join education schools such as TCU and volunteers to help repair the growing shortage of teachers for math and science classes.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, jobs requiring science, engineering and technical training will increase 51 percent through 2008. This increase could lead to 6 million job openings for scientists, engineers and technicians. In order to begin to prepare today’s youth for these careers, more than 260,000 new math and science teachers are needed by the 2008-2009 school year. There just aren’t enough, officials are saying.
Experts cite the differences between general math and science wages and teacher salaries and cultural gender roles as contributing factors to this dilemma.
“This is a definite problem that we should all be worried about, and it needs to be addressed,” said Molly Weinburgh, associate director of the Institute of Mathematics, Science and Technology Education at TCU.
It often comes down to the money, she said.
“I mean, why would a scientist who can make thousands more a year at Lockheed want to be a teacher?” Weinburgh said. “We need to make [teaching] worth it for them.”
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the mean annual salary for a mathematician in Texas is $71,570; for a materials scientist, $83,490; and for a middle school teacher, $42,820.
“There are too many things luring math and science experts away from the classroom to bridge the gap,” Weinburgh said.
IBM, the world’s largest information technology company, hopes to help reverse this cycle.
On Sept. 15, the corporation announced a new program, the first of its kind, where IBM will pay to train some of its veteran employees to begin second careers as teachers. The program will guide workers toward switching to a teaching career. The program, “Transition to Teaching,” was unveiled at Public School 19 in Manhattan by IBM International Foundation employees.
Maura Banta, the manager of IBM Corporate Community Relations, has helped the project take shape.
“We are very aware of the critical national shortage of math and science teachers,” Banta said. “And we know that our current employees plan to work longer than their predecessors – many of them with aspirations to work as teachers and in the nonprofit sector.”
This pilot program will be geared to IBM employees in their early 50s who are preparing to retire, but it will be open to all employees with at least 10 years of experience and some prior community service work.
“There are a lot of people who are interested in teaching, and they didn’t make that choice the first time because of economic circumstances,” said Stanley Litow, president of IBM’s International Foundation and former deputy chancellor of the New York City schools.
The 100 IBM employees accepted into the program will continue to work for the company while completing coursework to become a certified teacher and will be granted paid leave of absence to complete three months of student teaching. The employees will then leave IBM and become school employees. The program will encourage them to work in public schools, but they can teach in private schools if they wish.
The company will spend around $1.5 million on this program, paying up to $15,000 per employee for tuition and stipends.
To be eligible, IBM employees must have a bachelor’s degree in a math, science or related field and experience as a teacher, tutor or volunteer in a school or children’s program.
“We have had hundreds of calls and e-mails thanking us for this,” Banta said. “The United States will have thousands of technical jobs that won’t be filled unless we continue to develop those talents with math and science education. We hope other companies will follow our lead.”
Although the employees participating in IBM’s “Transition to Teaching” program will be placed primarily at schools in New York and North Carolina – two IBM hubs – Fort Worth is hurting for math and science teachers as well.
Locally, the Aeronautics division at Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defense contractor, has established a Hands On Science learning lab in partnership with the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History and TCU’s School of Education. The learning lab stimulates the children to learn about math and science through hands-on activities while local teachers can learn about and improve effective teaching techniques.
Nationally, about 60 percent of Lockheed Martin’s total philanthropic contributions are to education in such areas as computer technology and engineering programs, and to programs supporting minorities and women in these disciplines – both as teachers and specialists in these professions, said David Phillips, director of corporate philanthropy for Lockheed.
Betty Lynn Georges, director of employment and substitute teaching for Fort Worth Independent School District, said the number of teachers needed for math and science classrooms in Fort Worth nearly triples that of other subjects. The exact numbers are not known, but the need is serious, she said. For the month of September, Georges said she saw at least two math or science teachers quit; these are vacancies that are hard to fill, she said.
Patti Foster, an assistant to Texas Commissioner for Education Shirley Neeley, said Fort Worth is hurting desperately for more math and science teachers and that the Texas Education Agency is currently researching how to best address this problem.
Some steps have already been taken.
Schools like William James Middle School in Fort Worth are math- and science-focused. William James is infused with hands-on opportunities for students to explore math, science and technology. Programs at the school include a computer science lab, robotics courses, Math Counts competition involvement, an engineering center and marine biology labs.
Students seem to enjoy the interactive nature of William James’ approach to math and science, said Marsha Wright, a Fort Worth Independent School District employee.
Melody Macdonald, a sixth-grader at William James, got excited about science after taking a robotics class earlier this year.
Pointing to a robot that her science teacher modeled for the students, a bright-eyed Macdonald said, “I love science class. It’s definitely my favorite. I want to make robots when I grow up.”
Fort Worth officials hope that schools like William James will inspire students to pursue careers in math and science.
The city is recruiting math and science teachers to fill shortfalls any way they can.
Fort Worth Education Department officials said that about half of all new science and three-quarters of new math teachers came through alternative certification programs, in which people who did not formally train as teachers can qualify for a license.
The TCU Institute of Math, Science and Technology Education was established six years ago to provide changes to the ways in which math and science educators are taught to teach. The program focuses on contemporary, relevant approaches to teaching math and science.
Weinburgh said she also initiated a program at TCU to recruit students in math and science majors to pursue education in middle and high schools rather than a career as a mathematician or scientist. Enrollment has slowly increased since their efforts began a few years ago, she said.
Weinburgh said that professionals working in the math, science and technology fields are used to the self-regulation and status that their jobs provide, making the switch to education a tough one.
“It is difficult to find enough people who are skilled in teaching as well as knowledgeable in science that are also willing to do the job for such little income,” said Mark Bloom, a TCU biology instructor and doctoral student in the School of Education.
Bloom said he thinks that part of the problem begins when students are turned off to math and science as early as middle school.
“I think it’s amazing that I still want to do science with all the ways that I could have been turned off to it in middle school,” Bloom said. “If my teachers taught science for what it really is – relevant, interesting issues – I would have enjoyed it more then.”
More students would be interested in studying math and science education, despite the career’s hardships, if they had been more motivated by their math and science classes during their middle and high school years, Bloom said. Another factor is the teaching environment, which needs to improve, he said.
He originally planned to teach high school science until he began student teaching. Bloom observed a high school science class where the teacher was overwhelmed with standardized tests and angry parents and was getting paid far too little to do so.
“I decided it wasn’t worth it – I applaud teachers like this man, but it’s just too much for me to teach at that level so I teach at a university and do what I can to support teachers like this,” Bloom said. He has been involved in training modules with TCU’s School of Education to better prepare middle and high school science teachers for the classroom by conducting workshops and follow-up sessions helping teachers make science relevant and engaging for their students.
Molly Holden, a School of Education graduate student and former geological consultant, has switched over to science education to induce such change herself.
“I see my daughter come home, so excited about science, and I can’t wait to excite and nurture other students in this area,” Holden said.
Holden left her career to pursue middle school science education because of her love for science and her desire to show students the universality and significance of science.
Bloom agrees girls historically have not been nurtured in math and science in school as much as boys.
“When you’ve had decades of pushing women out of these fields, it will take a while to get them into math and science positions,” Bloom said. “I think it’s changing some now, though.”
Holden hopes to help with this cultural evolution toward equality.
“I want to make science more relevant and appealing to boys and girls,” Holden said. “I know it wasn’t when I was in school.”
Like Holden, Nickel hopes to create a classroom environment where all students, including girls, are given ample opportunities to experience the exciting sides of math.
“I’m so glad I had Mrs. Boyd to show me that math can be fun, and that it’s not just for boys,” Nickel said.
She hopes to incorporate singing, puzzles and board games into her future class’ curriculum to teach math concepts.
“There are a million things working against me being a math teacher – from the fact that I’m a girl to the fact that I could be making more money somewhere else – but I want to impact the lives of future generations through education,” Nickel said. “And as a math teacher, I think I’m even more needed, and my impact can be even more profound.