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U creates new STEM education hub to support teachers

The University of Utah is establishing a new hub to support the development and application of new approaches that prepare students for future STEM jobs while supporting teachers with best practices and training to be well-prepared science and mathematics teachers for Utah’s schools, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Mitzi Montoya announced Monday. Nancy Butler Songer, dean of the College of Education, has been named as the inaugural associate provost of STEM education to oversee the new initiative.

Dr. Nancy Butler Songer

“Our mission is to inspire students who want to learn about science and technology, and one day pursue a career in the competitive STEM-educated workforce, including teaching,” Montoya said. “This new initiative has the potential to impact STEM teachers across the state, and the country, providing them leading-edge research on best practices as well as support to help their students achieve their dreams.”

While students across the United States continue to rebound from the effects of disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, data shows student achievement in mathematics has been stagnant for more than a decade, with access to well-qualified mathematics and science teachers playing a factor in the country’s lagging international rankings, according to the National Science Board. As associate provost, Songer will work with partners within the U’s College of Education, College of Science, Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine, John and Marcia Price College of Engineering and public schools in Utah to recruit, support and mentor STEM classroom teachers in Utah.

Projections are that 60 percent of tomorrow’s jobs still need to be created, and Utah’s ability to maintain national competitiveness and economic growth relies on careers in science, technology, engineering and math. The U’s new hub has the potential to not only bolster Utah’s economy, but provide national leadership and direction for STEM teachers across the country.

“Teachers are critical in providing students with inquiry, discovery, and engineering design opportunities, but we must start early,” Songer said. “By age 14, children are already making choices about their future careers. We can prepare for the future by providing children with highly trained and well-supported STEM teachers.”

As associate provost, Songer will build on existing funding, including a $2.5 million gift from the Emma Eccles Jones Foundation, a National Science Foundation NOYCE grant, and a $2.9 million NSF research grant to oversee efforts to recruit elementary and secondary STEM teachers and secure financial support to cover tuition and fees for teachers enrolled in a teacher education program at the U or Salt Lake Community College. The program will graduate 80 STEM teachers each year and include coaching and mentoring for teachers for theier first three years of classroom teaching.

Songer brings to her new role more than 30 years as a National Science Foundation principal investigator, having received more than $75 million in research funding as a principal investigator or co-principal investigator. She has completed research work in Utah and Salt Lake counties, and previously in Detroit, that focused on creating and studying technology-rich curricular and assessment programs that foster complex learning in STEM fields and, in conjunction with other partners, contribute to students’ significant state test performance improvement. Songer has received two Fulbright awards and the National Science Foundation’s Presidential Faculty Fellowship award from former President Bill Clinton during his administration. She also served as co-chair of a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee authoring a report on science and engineering for grades 6-12. An interim dean will be selected to lead the College of Education after Songer’s transition to her new role.