Arkansas faces a critical shortage of qualified mathematics and science teachers, but help is on the way. The University of Arkansas at Monticello recently graduated a record number of teacher education students, many who are choosing mathematics or science as their content area. UAM has also doubled the number of mathematics and science teachers currently enrolled in its master of arts in teaching (M.A.T.) degree program who will graduate in 2013.

The increases are a result of a collaborative effort between UAM’s School of Education, School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences, the UAM STEM Center, and the Education Renewal Zone to encourage students majoring in mathematics or science to consider careers in teaching.

Last August, Governor Mike Beebe and his Workforce Cabinet created a pilot program called STEM Works to improve education in high schools and universities in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “Improving education in these areas is vitally important to the future of our state,” said R. David Ray, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. “It is essential that we work to increase the number of STEM teachers in this region.”

“Arkansas and the nation as a whole need more highly qualified math and science educators,”  added Dr. Peggy Doss, dean of the School of Education. “It has become increasingly more difficult for school districts to find and employ qualified teachers in these areas. That’s why these numbers are so encouraging. Increasing the number of 2013 M.A.T. math and science students from 6 to 12 is a beginning, but only a beginning. We still have much work to do.”

UAM graduated 53 students with bachelor’s degrees in various licensure areas of teacher education, representing a 179 percent increase over last year’s 19 graduates. The School of Education has also made significant changes to ensure the quality of its graduates. UAM has the only teacher preparation program in the state that requires a year-long internship in which education students complete an academic year in the public schools during their last two semesters.

UAM recently entered into a memorandum of understanding with four school districts – Monticello, Drew Central, Rison, and McGehee (with more to come) – which will commit those districts to pay tuition for an M.A.T. student in a high-need licensure area in exchange for a commitment to teach in that district. The length of the teaching commitment varies from four to five years depending on the school district.

“The steps we are taking are important ways to improve science and mathematics education in the region and state,” said Dr. Morris Bramlett, dean of the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences. “We are letting our students know that they have options following graduation, and one of those options is to teach. It’s vital that we increase the number of skilled science and math teachers.”

Bramlett, with the support of Tracie Jones, director of the UAM Education Renewal Zone, recently organized a reception for all mathematics and science majors and invited Doss and her faculty as well as public school administrators to speak to his students about teaching careers. McGehee Superintendent Thomas Gathen was among the school administrators from southeast Arkansas to attend the event.

“Thomas Gathen went above and beyond,” said Doss. “He came over and met with our math and science students and encouraged them to consider teaching as a career path. He helped blaze the trail.”

Doss and her faculty are also looking for ways to alleviate the next teacher shortage in the areas of English and foreign languages. Doss and Mark Spencer, dean of UAM’s School of Arts and Humanities, are exploring ways to encourage students in the humanities to consider teaching careers.

“We have developed a unique relationship between the School of Education and other academic units on campus,” Doss said. “I’m not sure you could find that kind of atmosphere of cooperation other places. Dr. Bramlett, Mr. Spencer and I are committed to working together and support each other’s efforts to improve education in Arkansas. This isn’t just something we should do; it’s something we must do. Our state’s future depends on it.”