We Prepare Teachers. They Change the World.

We Prepare Teachers. They Change the World.

05.18.2016

By Michael Marder, Professor of Physics and UTeach Executive Director, University of Texas at Austin

In the fall of 1997, the University of Texas at Austin launched UTeach, which began preparing STEM teachers in a new way. Today, 44 universities are part of the UTeach network. Michael Marder is co-founder and co-director of UTeach in Austin, and will give the keynote address at this year’s UTeach Conference.

Many people work to prepare teachers because they worry about a crisis in STEM education. But there is also a tradition of extraordinary education in science and mathematics in the United States. I want to prepare teachers to carry on that tradition, which I was privileged to experience when I was young.

I grew up in the Midwest, safely removed from the threats that brought my father to the United States as a refugee. Throughout elementary school there were educational experiments in my class, but in middle school I was subjected to the most interesting experiment of all. Researchers wanted to know what would happen if kids were allowed to follow their own interests, gently steered in productive directions, and supported to pursue them.

This experience stuck with me for a lifetime. With nearly invisible guidance, I was able to learn enough math during 8th grade to be ready for college. I built electronic circuits in a lab with the help of two graduate students who, at a table next to mine, were building a prototype of an early floppy disk drive.

Years later, as a physics faculty member, I worked with Master Teachers to design UTeach, a new program to prepare STEM teachers. I thought back on the support I had received, wondered who could have such a privileged education, and resolved that we must offer it to as many students as possible.

That is why we designed UTeach with elements not always common in teacher education. Sure, every graduate should have strong mastery of the science and math content they would teach. But we also wanted our teachers and their students to know about independent inquiry. So we created a course on Project-Based Instruction that prepares UTeach graduates to deliver instruction through student-driven questions and team projects. And we created a course on Research Methods in which students learn scientific and mathematical practices by following their own curiosity.

Our UTeach graduates do extraordinary things after they graduate and get their own classrooms. One brought AP physics to an underprivileged school and started sending his students to the country’s top engineering programs. One took her students to the International Space Settlement Design competition in 2015. A second-year chemistry teacher has inspired a huge jump in enrollment in AP Chemistry classes at her urban school. One graduate co-authored a biology textbook informed by inquiry-based instruction and provided it on a pay-what-you-can model, given that teachers and school districts face increasingly restrictive budget cuts.

So in advance of our annual conference, we'd like to take a break from worrying about how far education in the U.S. has to go, and pause to celebrate what we are getting right. We live in a profoundly inventive and dynamic country, with brilliant scientists and entrepreneurs. They were all children once, and so many got where they are because of a teacher who inspired them. To all those teachers, we owe loud thanks, and for the future let’s resolve to prepare new generations of great teachers, ones who can get kids to the point where they propel themselves, who know the time to push and the time to let go.