Scholarships put expert science teachers in high-need schools

Erika Flockoi

She wanted to be a science teacher, but teaching in a high-need school district was never on Erika Flockoi’s radar. Now, thanks to a new UO scholarship program, Flockoi is going to do just that.

“It wasn’t something I was looking into,” she said. “But the fact that I’m going to be there is only inspiring me more because I’m like, wow, there are kids that don’t get as great opportunities, and I want to try extra hard for them.”  


The first two students to enter the new ESPRIT scholarship program will be recognized at a special event Tuesday, Jan. 23, in the Willamette Hall atrium.

The celebration event for Erika Flockoi and Halli Roussell begins at 4 p.m. The two students will start their teacher education program in June.

Faculty members, staff and the deans of the College of Education and College of Arts and Sciences will be on hand to recognize the students and mark the launch of the ESPRIT program. Nationally, fewer than half the K-12 classes in chemistry and physics are taught by educators with a degree in the subject. The UO program is trying to change that.

The Tuesday event will be followed by a hands-on science exploration in Room 147, Willamette Hall with physics instructor and STEMCORE associate director Bryan Rebar.

Flockoi, a physics major, is a recipient of an Experiencing Science Practices through Research to Inspire Teaching scholarship. In exchange for her future commitment to high-needs school districts, she is receiving funding for her final year as an undergraduate.

As a prerequisite to the scholarship, known as ESPRIT, she spent her summer working on a research project in the physics lab of UO professor Benjamín Alemán. This element of the scholarship program is intended to create highly qualified science teachers, particularly from underrepresented groups, who draw on real research experience for their teaching.

Flockoi is one of two students who were the first to receive the ESPRIT scholarship. The other is Halli Roussell, a biology major and musician in the Clark Honors College who spent last summer working in the lab of professor Santiago Jaramillo.

Last May, UO researchers were awarded a $1.2 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation as part of its Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship program. The goal of the award is to study how to recruit science teachers who are from underrepresented groups and are skilled scientists committed to engaging students from underrepresented groups. Jill Baxter of the College of Education is the principal investigator, and Dean Livelybrooks and Bryan Rebar of the College of Arts and Sciences are co-principal investigators.

The UO's new ESPRIT program funds paid summer research experiences for science majors interested in teaching. After participating in a summer research experience, undergraduates may receive senior-year scholarships and then master's-level teacher licensure program scholarships through UOTeach.

Students receiving ESPRIT scholarships will have up to seven years after completing their teacher licensure program to teach for four years at a high-need school district. A school district is considered high-need if more than half of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch, or if it has more than the average rate of teachers teaching out of discipline. In Oregon, around half of all school districts are high-need.

Rebar, the associate director of the UO’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Careers through Outreach Research and Education, known as STEMCORE, explained the importance of the research experience portion of ESPRIT. 

“We want future science teachers to participate doing science in real labs. We think it’s going to bring real credibility to the classroom,” Rebar said. “The typical pathway into science teaching is you spend four years, you get your science degree, then you spend a year on your teaching credential and you spend the rest of your career teaching science and preparing the next generation of scientists and getting people interested about what real science is, perhaps never having done real science. And that seems a little strange.”

Flockoi was one of six of the ESPRIT program’s first summer cohort. She spent her summer in the Alemán Lab working on a confocal microscope and helping with the lab’s artificial retina project.

“We had this class during the summer along with our research that helped us understand how to adapt our research to a classroom so students can see that what they’re learning is directly applicable to the real world,” Flockoi said. “The No. 1 question everybody asks you in high school and middle school is, ‘When are we going to use this again?’ or ‘Why is this important to me?’ and it’s really hard to get them to kind of look outside of their own window. I can show them some of my real images that I’ve taken with my microscope and I think that it’ll hopefully earn me some respect and definitely make it more interesting for them.”

The ESPRIT program also supports monthly Innovative Science Teaching Explorations seminars, open to all science majors, to discuss exemplary science teaching methods. The big push in science education, Rebar explained, is to teach students to do science the way real scientists do it: through asking testable questions, planning investigations, using mathematics and models, making explanations from evidence and communicating scientific results.

“Even first-graders, kindergarteners can do those things at the appropriate level. The goal is to get teachers to do that in their classrooms: model real science,” Rebar said.

Flockoi grew up in Gold Hill, a town of just over 1,200 people.

“I came from a high school that was middle class, but my elementary school was definitely lower class in this tiny, tiny town, and we didn’t have the best equipment,” she said. “We didn’t have as many opportunities, and that definitely decreases your confidence as a student. I want to be able to be a cheerleader and help reassure students that they’re just as smart and they can do just as much as other kids.”

Equity is a primary focus of the grant.

“We know from research that teachers serve as role models for who can be engaged in science,” said Baxter,  an education studies professor and co-director of STEMCORE. “A primary goal of this grant is to recruit more science teachers from underrepresented groups. In addition, the ESPRIT scholarship recipients participate in UOTeach where they learn to teach equity-infused science that is meaningful, culturally responsive and relevant. This is precisely why the NSF funded our grant — for our multi-dimensional focus on equity.”

Flockoi is the first person to accept the UO’s senior-year ESPRIT scholarship, worth up to $10,000. She plans to get her teaching license through UOTeach, applying for the master’s level ESPRIT scholarship worth up to $22,000.

“I feel so honored. I’m not from the most wealthy of families and I’ve always been trying to get scholarships,” she said. “I’ve worked part-time my whole college career, too, and it feels awesome to have some help. I’m more than excited to show them that they’re investing in the right person.”

—By Sarah Eddy, University Communications