One D cell battery, a circuit board, some wire, a switch, a rivet and 25 washers.
The sixth-grade science class at Ridgely Middle School hunkers down over the makings of kid-size electromagnets. They’ve just seen a video of a scrap-yard crane hoisting and dropping huge clumps of metal, so they know what makes electromagnets different from other magnets: They can be switched on and off.
Now Emily Braden, a TU sophomore and UTeach rookie, wants to know what risks their lab experiment might entail. It’s a question scientists should pose before embarking on any project, no matter how safe it seems.
“Burns?” one pupil suggests. Possibly, Braden concedes.
Another asks whether the school has life-support capabilities, setting off a mini-explosion of giggles. As Braden and Uteach partner Kathleen Ho reassure the boy, a woman at the back of the room looks up from her keyboard and smiles.
“You never know what they’re going to say,” says Christine Roland, a Towson UTeach master teacher who’s been observing the lesson. “It makes teaching science so much fun.”
Learning science is fun too. The six teams quickly assemble their electromagnets in consultation with Braden and Ho. Eager hands flip switches and begin tallying the number of washers they can dangle from the tip of each wire-wrapped rivet. “We have four!” someone shouts, only to be upstaged moments later by “We have five! “Hey, we have eight!”
It’s exactly what Roland and her Towson UTeach colleagues want to hear.
UTeach, a collaboration involving TU’s College of Education and Fisher College of Science and Mathematics, offers science and math majors a low-pressure, commitment-free way to explore teaching in their first year of college.
It’s one of several forward-thinking initiatives championed by Nancy S. Grasmick, former Maryland state superintendent of schools, in her role as presidential scholar at TU.
“We’re giving them a chance to fall in—or out—of love with teaching,” says Roland, one of two master teachers working with the program’s 86 undergraduates.
“Some will decide it’s not for them—and that’s fine,” she continues. “What matters more is that others will discover their ‘inner teacher’ and decide to pursue
Unlike traditional teacher education programs, UTeach participants begin by teaching elementary-school pupils, then move gradually through middle school until they’re teaching high-school students—all under the watchful gaze of UTeach master teachers and mentor teachers at partner schools. Roland explains that the vertical perspective gives rookies time to mature as educators and appreciate how children learn at varying grade levels.
The program allows science and mathematics majors to explore teaching at the middle school and high school levels.
UTeach students have in-school experiences beginning with their first semester and continuing throughout their program.
They learn from master teachers – exemplary, experienced and inspirational high school science and math teachers.
UTeach students pursue bachelor’s degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) disciplines while honing the teaching, lesson-planning and classroom-management skills needed for state certification. The program’s master teachers instruct, advise, question and support throughout the process.
Roland notes that although would-be teachers are expected to master their subjects, “becoming a teacher also requires a lot of reflection and identity-building.” She and fellow master teacher Dolores Bonincontri monitor academic progress as well as personal and professional growth at each step along the way.
Braden, who taught the electromagnet lesson at Ridgely Middle School, exemplifies the kind of student UTeach aims to recruit.
A chemistry major from Mount Airy, Md., Braden transferred to TU after a year of community college. She says UTeach played a role in her decision to pursue her bachelor’s degree at Towson, adding that the idea of “teaching tryouts” appealed to her.
With Roland’s guidance, Braden, Ho and their Ridgely Middle mentor teacher identified an appropriate topic, developed a lesson plan and decided how best to teach it to sixth graders.
Once she stood before a real class—with real kids—Braden says she began to imagine a career in science teaching. “It’s different, being a teacher and seeing firsthand how everything works,” she says of her tryout.
“The field work experience involves a terrific amount of preparation,” says Roland. “But for the best of them, the ones we hope will become science and mathematics teachers, I think it’s a labor of love.”
Nancy Grasmick Brings UTeach to Towson
As UTeach rookies inspire area children, Nancy Grasmick looks beyond the classroom to the program’s potential impact on Maryland—and the nation. Grasmick, a TU alumna and former state superintendent of schools, now serves as Towson University’s presidential scholar for innovation in teacher and leader education.
“I heard about UTeach when I was state superintendent,” she says. “So many jobs were requiring science or mathematics backgrounds, and Maryland was producing one physics teacher per year.”
Grasmick sat on the National Academy of Science task force—the only pre-K-12 member—that studied U.S. competiveness in the global marketplace. “The statistics were stunning,” she recalls. “There was no doubt that the United States was losing out to China and India.” The task force’s subsequent recommendation to Congress called for more STEM teachers at the pre-K-12 level. “I was a big believer after that,” Grasmick adds. She says her appointment to a national mathematics and science board only strengthened that conviction.
UTeach, founded in 1997 at the University of Texas at Austin, offered “teaching tryouts” as part of its innovative approach to the crisis. “I saw UTeach as a way for Maryland to develop the specialized teachers we so desperately needed.” Grasmick says. “They would be committed from the outset and have deep expertise in STEM disciplines.”
She also knew that Towson University, which graduates the largest number of teachers in the state, was a perfect UTeach candidate. “We submitted an outstanding proposal, which was funded,” she notes with pride, adding that her alma mater was the first Maryland university to gain UTeach affiliation.
Now, midway through the program’s second year, Grasmick is thrilled to see increasing numbers of science and math majors signing on. “Our UTeach students are our ambassadors,” she says. “They’re spreading the word.”