Getting at the root of the STEM problem in Tennessee

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Two years ago, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville launched VolsTeach, a program that aims to increase the number of effective new science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) teachers. Modeled after the widely lauded UTeach program at the University of Texas at Austin, VolsTeach recruits students planning to major in STEM fields and gives them the opportunity to earn education minors and teaching certificates.

A few aspects of the program stand out from our point of view. One is that the program ensures from the beginning that participants are on track to earn their academic degree, thereby relieving the pressure on the program to award certificates to candidates who might be marginal performers. The program also emphasizes that its early field courses are intended to give candidates the chance to find out if the profession is right for them. One hopes that they also provide opportunities for faculty to tell if the candidates are right for the profession.

What's more, the institution in which VolsTeach is embedded is drawing its students from the top half of the college going population, making it more likely that its graduates will be effective in the classroom.

Richard Rhoda, the executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, noted that VolsTeach had "exceeded even the highest expectations set for the program." Rhoda went on to say that the program's "robust growth" -- more than 200 students have enrolled thus far -- made it a "model site." VolsTeach does seem to suggest that having higher standards for academic talent doesn't have to mean reducing the number of potentially effective teachers, even in hard-to-staff subjects.

--Amy MacKown