Temple hopes math, science pros turn to teaching

August 9, 2009 11:44:15 AM PDT
Despite a 20-year career in biochemistry, Trevor Selwood recently found his appreciation for science being overshadowed by the constant uncertainty of research funding - so much so that he began looking at alternative careers. He found one through Temple University, where the Transition to Teaching program helped Selwood combine his science smarts and real-world experience with the educational skills needed to teach middle school.

Selwood, among the program's first class of graduates in July, is slated to start teaching science this fall in Philadelphia, where he did his student teaching.

"Most of the kids were really nice and they really want to learn," Selwood said. "I had a good time interacting with them."

Funded through a $3 million, five-year federal grant, the Temple program is aimed at mid-career science and math professionals who think they might want to teach. It's designed so that people like Selwood can keep their day jobs - in his case, at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia - while they pursue a teaching certificate at an accelerated pace.

The hope is that by bringing in people with real-world experience to the classroom, students will see how the subjects apply to daily life, said Temple assistant professor Diane Jass Ketelhut, who helped design the program.

"The authenticity of their knowledge is blatantly clear to kids, and they really respond to that authenticity," Ketelhut said.

Nicknamed "Emc2" - Educating Middle-Grades Teachers for Challenging Contexts - the program is part of a national effort to address a shortage of math and science instructors and to improve U.S. students' lagging performance in those subjects, said program director Heidi Ramirez.

Participants learn how to teach students with varying academic skills, how to develop a style that keeps kids interested, and how middle schools are structured. Their Temple tuition is subsidized and, in exchange, they promise to teach for three years in one of three struggling urban districts: Philadelphia, Harrisburg or Chester-Upland.

"I was surprised going through the teaching course how little I knew about teaching. I learned a lot," said Selwood, 48. "You've got to be almost like a movie star - you've got to keep them entertained."

Middle school is when students begin identifying themselves as either science people or non-science people, said Ketelhut, a former science teacher. And their confidence in their ability to do science drops fairly dramatically over the K-12 years, she said.

"Kids are born curious about their world, and that is science," she said. "Somewhere along the way, when they get a more regimented or structured view of science ... they start to turn off slowly but surely."

The federal government funds about $44 million in Transition to Teaching programs nationwide, but this one is unique in Pennsylvania, said Michael Race, spokesman for the state Department of Education.

The department is advocating state legislation that would create similar alternative certification for professionals who want to teach in any subject where there is a teacher shortage, Race said.

The Temple program is rigorous; the inaugural class started with 10 people but graduated only five. Ramirez said the retention rate is not surprising considering the demands on working adults' schedules. And some come to realize that they aren't cut out for teaching, she said.

"And that's OK," said Ramirez. "We'd much rather they figure that out at the front end."

Still, Ramirez is hoping that 25 to 35 people enroll in this year's class. Only 9 percent of Pennsylvania teaching certificates are issued in math and science each year, she said.

Tomas Hanna, chief of school operations for the Philadelphia district, said officials are thrilled to be the beneficiaries of the program.

"Someone who's been in a career in the real world can explain ... 'Solving this equation means you can do these kinds of things,"' said Hanna. "We're really psyched about them coming on board."


Temple University's Transition to Teaching: http://www.temple.edu/education/emc2/

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