Saint Leo University is already known for its expertise in preparing classroom teachers for elementary and middle schools, and now is doing more to help address the shortage of secondary school teachers for STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The dearth is a problem both for schools and for our broader society.
The modern economy, of course, is hungry for college graduates adept in areas such as computer programming, software design, and cybersecurity, and indeed, Saint Leo has created new degree offerings to help meet that unceasing demand. While more people are moving into those fields, we still need to solve a distinct, but related dilemma. Who is available and qualified to take up the challenge of teaching science, math, and related topics in the nation’s secondary schools so that teens can be prepared for post-high school education in technologically determined fields, and generally for adult life in an age of continuing advances? That is one tricky question, influenced both by college costs and competing attractive pay scales in industry.
Fortunately, there are young people willing and able to embrace STEM teaching if offered sufficient nurturing and support—people like Laela Ouellette, a junior at Saint Leo. The 20-year-old Ouellette was in the right place when Saint Leo convinced the National Science Foundation to help underwrite major scholarships to develop more STEM teachers.
Ouellette is receiving more than $18,000 this year in scholarship support, an award that will be renewed next year if she continues to do well. She is the first to qualify for the award, but faculty hope several more students will follow her, apply for the funding, and enter a STEM teaching career. That would be just the beginning. The university will continue to develop such teachers long term, after the grant is over.
But the federal dollars were crucial for getting started. Administrators and faculty worked diligently to attract $1.2 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program, named for the late American physicist (1927-1990), to pay for the generous scholarships. If Noyce’s surname does not sound familiar, his accomplishments are recognizable. He co-invented the integrated circuit in 1959, and later co-founded Intel Corp., the major supplier of computer processors. He also worked to keep the American semiconductor research at the forefront of an international rivalry—a pursuit that required gaining cooperation from competing corporations for a national good. And when the foundation created a program in 2002 to attract talented young people into educational careers—rather than leaving the matter to chance—the initiative was named for Noyce.
Saint Leo pledged to use the grant proceeds to groom degree candidates from two well-established academic programs: the Bachelor of Science degree in general biology, or the Bachelor of Arts in mathematics, supplemented in either case by the university’s minor in education. Students from those degree programs who qualified for financial support were to be called ACES (Awarding Career Educators in STEM) Scholars.
As Saint Leo worked on the grant idea and application, Ouellette was finishing high school and settling on Saint Leo as her top-choice college. She is first in her family to attend.
First scholar emerges
“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher,” Ouellette said. As the older of two siblings growing up, she often helped her brother with his homework. And during high school in nearby Spring Hill, Florida, she enjoyed being a teacher’s assistant in several subjects. “I was like, ‘This is probably a really good career path,’” she recalled thinking to herself.
Some of her own teachers encouraged her interest. They suggested, in fact, that if she wanted to go into education, she could consider becoming a science teacher, as she enjoyed the subject. Not only that, science teachers are often in short supply in public schools, she was informed. That was new information to her, and important.
Though Ouellette looked at a number of institutions in Florida and near her family’s roots in New England, Saint Leo had many points that appealed to her.
“I heard it had a really amazing education program and an amazing biology program,” she said. She liked its location and modest size, too. “I’ll get a better education because of the small class sizes,” she decided.
Early in her time at Saint Leo, she met Dr. Laura Altfeld, her advisor and an associate professor of biology. Ouellette did not know it at the time, but Altfeld was working with some colleagues to apply for the NSF grant. When the grant came through, Altfeld was named the principal investigator (administrator), and she urged Ouellette to apply for one of the resulting scholarships.
The young woman was a sophomore, feeling time and money pressures. “Since I began college, I have been working almost full-time.” Her family is supportive of her career goals, but circumstances are such that she is financially responsible for her own education. When Ouellette won the award, she realized she could work fewer hours at a restaurant job, and focus more on her studies and getting higher grades.
More program benefits
Her story partly illustrates the point of substantial upper-level scholarships. The money is not meant to redirect someone with no prior interest in teaching into classrooms for decades, but it is meant to allow young people with potential the means to stay in college and pursue a challenging teacher-education program.
There are minimum requirements to fulfill after graduation: scholarship recipients must teach for two years at a school district in need for each year of scholarship aid received, or the money must be repaid. In this case, Saint Leo will feed secondary teachers to Pasco and Hernando county schools nearby.
There are also rich benefits even beyond the scholarship dollars.
Altfeld said the scholars grow also through supportive connections they make while undergraduates through special conferences and meetings they attend along with graduates—one annual event is called the Noyce Summit. Participants get to discuss everything from classroom matters, to professional organizations and museums that supply resources to teachers, to maintaining their own enthusiasm for teaching. Professional networks are built along the way. “That’s community building,” Altfeld said.
Strong education minor
Now that Ouellette is a junior, she is beginning her education courses. That has brought her into contact with Dr. Holly Atkins, undergraduate education chair, and another of the three Saint Leo faculty members working on the ACES/Noyce program. Atkins said she was gratified when she first met Ouellette, and early in the meeting the sophomore said simply: “ ‘I want to be a teacher.’ That simple phrase is so critical,” Atkins said.
Ouellette said she is already looking forward to the skills she will gain from her minor. “It gives me a lot of confidence, as an upcoming teacher, to know I will be trained to use a lot of technology in my classroom.”
There is more to the teacher-preparation curriculum that will prove empowering, added Cheryl Berry, a Saint Leo life sciences and education instructor who was once in a situation quite similar to Ouellette’s. Berry also majored in science at Saint Leo as an undergraduate, thinking she would go straight into the field. Berry went into teaching instead, but without, at first, gaining a grounding in education courses. Ouellette is getting the well-rounded science education, along with an understanding of teaching methods, classroom management skills, and experiences in schools, Berry said, yielding a teacher who is well-prepared from the outset.
It will be good for younger public school students as well, Berry said, for them to see Ouellette in an academic discipline where women have been under-represented in the past. “I feel she is going to be an excellent role model,” added Berry, who works with faculty colleagues Altfeld and Atkins on the ACES Scholars program.
Saint Leo teaching alumna and ACES Scholars will also be asked to come back to share notes with one another, and to help others coming up, Atkins added. “It doesn’t end when she graduates. We will be following her as she goes out into her teaching career. She’ll be coming back as an upcoming scholar. That helps her to grow as a teacher-leader.”
Three to six more students will be added to the ACES Program each year for the next three years. Students transferring to Saint Leo for their junior and senior year work are eligible to apply, in addition to interested sophomores currently enrolled at Saint Leo. Students must also be U.S. citizens. For information on applying to the program at Saint Leo for upcoming years, visit this page. Or, email ACES@saintleo.edu.
Facts on critical teacher shortages
The need for teachers is especially acute in some subject areas. Early in 2020, the Florida Department of Education named general science, physical science, and mathematics as being among the eight subject areas experiencing a “critical teacher shortage” statewide for the 2020-2021 school year. The subjects have been on the list in previous years, as well.
That can force schools in Florida to hire as instructors of mathematics or general science people who are not yet certified to teach in those subjects. In such cases, the teachers have to attain certification in their subject within three years to keep working in their positions. The state and colleges have established training pathways for people in those situations. But naturally schools prefer to hire educators who have those certifications from the outset.