NSF grant boosts UO efforts to support STEM teachers

Teachers working on a tabletop exercise

A $4.2 million National Science Foundation grant will boost the UO’s efforts to build a support community for STEM teachers across 14 Western states through the agency’s Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program.

The award will fund the Western Regional Noyce Network, a UO-led partnership with 12 other universities working to recruit, prepare and support aspiring STEM teachers. The program emphasizes placing teachers in underserved schools.

For the past 20 years, the Noyce scholarship program has been helping STEM majors and professionals become K-12 teachers.

“We’re very excited to help Noyce Scholars launch their teaching careers, hit the ground running and succeed in the classroom during those crucial early years of teaching,” said Bryan Rebar, associate director of STEM CORE.

That UO consortium, STEM Careers through Outreach, Research and Education, works to advance STEM education at all levels, including training and support for K–12 teachers. STEM refers to science, technology, engineering and math.

“We already have an active, motivated community,” Rebar said. “The WRNN will expand and improve the activities available to them and create an online platform to help them connect and find useful resources.”

The Noyce network represents the third Noyce project at the UO. Like the other two, it’s the result of collaborations between the UO’s College of Arts and Sciences and College of Education.

Last March, Rebar met with colleagues from participating universities to develop a plan for the network. Project co-leaders include professor Jenefer Husman from the College of Education; associate professor Donna Ross at San Diego State University; Stephanie Salomone, associate dean for faculty at the University of Portland’s Shiley School of Engineering; and Adem Ekmekci, a clinical assistant professor at Rice University.

Their strategy focuses on helping new and future teachers build professional networks and stay current on best practices that will help them succeed. The NSF grant will fund conferences, professional development opportunities and a robust website.

Nationally, K–12 schools are grappling with a teacher shortage, Rebar said. He cites a recent report from the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, which found at least 36,000 vacant teaching positions and at least 163,000 positions held by underqualified teachers in U.S. public schools.

Because of the difficulties inherent in gathering accurate data, he added, the reality in the nation’s classrooms is likely much worse. And the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the challenge.

This paucity of teachers, Rebar said, is pronounced among the STEM subjects. For example, more than half of U.S. students taking physics or chemistry courses are learning from teachers without degrees in those subjects.

By encouraging STEM majors and professionals to teach in underserved schools, and helping them stick with it through their first years of teaching, Rebar and his colleagues hope to help alleviate the problem.

In the long run, Rebar said, many high school graduates who excel in STEM subjects will study them in college. And some will enter the teaching profession, creating a virtuous cycle.

Rebar will lead the Noyce initiative but emphasizes it’s a team effort involving 12 other universities. The network will support students and early-career teachers participating in one of 150 Noyce programs throughout the west.

In addition to an annual conference and other programs, the NSF grant will also fund professional development opportunities for early- career teachers. Rebar notes that obtaining specialized tools, skills and resources can help teachers succeed in the classroom —and remain committed to the profession.

Building on lessons learned during the pandemic, organizers will offer training modules in multiple formats, including virtual synchronous and asynchronous sessions. They plan to train 450 students.

To keep community members connected between events and provide additional resources, the UO will develop and maintain a dynamic, interactive website, a resource the WRN community has lacked. The site, to be developed by the UO’s Dane Ramshaw, will offer a platform for sharing current news and information. Noyce scholars will be able to complete surveys, exchange ideas and register for events.

The website will also provide a digital repository of lesson plans, professional development modules and other resources. It will offer online community discussions and foster social media engagement.

“We’re building on our past success to develop a vibrant, supportive community of Noyce scholars and program leaders,” Rebar said. “I’m honored to carry the torch and continue growing and expanding this network. Ultimately, it will result in more, and better prepared, STEM teachers, especially in schools where they are most needed.”

By Ed Dorsch, University Communications