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Home U Rising A new initiative at the U will ensure teachers know how to help students excel in STEM fields


The University of Utah has launched a new research hub to prepare future and current educators to teach science and mathematics in K-12 grades. Nancy Butler Songer is leading this initiative and, on this episode of U Rising with host Chris Nelson, explains how the initiative is aimed at shaping the STEM workforce of the future.

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Chris Nelson: Welcome to U Rising. I'm Chris Nelson.

Earlier this summer, the U launched a new research hub to help prepare future and current educators to teach science and mathematics in K through 12 grades.

Dr. Nancy Songer is the associate provost of STEM education and a professor in the College of Education, and she's leading this new initiative. Today we're going to hear how this program works and why it's needed and how it will impact the STEM workforce of the future.

Welcome to U Rising, Nancy.

Nancy Songer: Thank you so much, Chris.

Chris Nelson: So, Nancy, I think this is the first interdisciplinary hub established at the U. Give us the basics. Tell us about STEM Education Hub and its mission.

Nancy Songer: So science and math are so critical to our society, whether it be developing new technologies, making medical advancements or protecting the environment. Many of the problems we're facing have foundations in science, technology, engineering and math or STEM fields, and it's essential that we be training our citizens to not just be aware of these topics, but to be critical problem solvers for our future.

Chris Nelson: And talk about your mission.

Nancy Songer: Our mission at the Usable STEM Research and Practice Hub is to train those teachers that are going to make a difference for tomorrow's citizens. We know that science and math are critical to our society. We know problems are complex. We know teaching is a complex profession. We've done extensive research to figure out how we guide new perspective teachers to be those change agents in classrooms, to teach their students to be problem solvers and nimble citizens of the future to address whatever problems might come along in the future. That is our mission.

Chris Nelson: So lots of reports out nationally indicating grade school students are lagging in math and science skills. You touched on that, but maybe a little bit more on the implications. What does it mean for our country to have a gap in that process of educating students in those fields?

Nancy Songer: Yes. So our recent national test scores in 2022 demonstrated that fourth grade mathematics scores were the lowest that they've been in 20 years. Similarly, our eighth grade math scores were also extremely low. So we're coming off of a pandemic, and the pandemic has not only set us back in terms of the foundations of science and mathematics, but it's also not really positioned us well to be problem solvers for these complicated interdisciplinary problems that we're all facing. So, we really need to be nimble and we need to have proactive citizens, and we need teachers that are motivated and understand some of the complexities of the STEM fields and how we really motivate people to be problem solvers for our future. And our program at the U is really addressing that problem firsthand.

Chris Nelson: And the concern that makes sense to me is if we're talking about fourth and eighth grade students, we're talking about a problem that's going to surface itself in 10, 15 years, right?

Nancy Songer: Many of our interdisciplinary challenges do have STEM foundations. For example, developing a vaccine, thinking about how we would address climate change issues, how we can not only solve these problems but be better suited for emerging problems as they come. We have to really be forward thinking in our problem-solving skills. And our current school systems are really not training kids to think that way, to address complex interdisciplinary problems, to work in teams, to be creative in their brainstorm about how we would address such issues, and then how we can work together as communities to address issues that are not just on a local scale, but many things are happening globally.

Chris Nelson: And so complicating all of this is a shortage of teachers, especially teachers with knowledge in STEM fields. So not only do we have a gap in the students' learning, but we have a gap in the number of teachers available. How's your work going to have an impact there? And maybe if not national, at least here in Utah.

Nancy Songer: So we're not only just seeing shortages of STEM teachers across the U.S., but there are particular pockets of need in Utah and across the country. So, for example, rural communities are having a difficult time getting high quality STEM teachers to come to their schools. At our program, we are not only going to be reaching out to rural communities in Utah and training their teachers so that they can go back and be the problem solvers and the leaders for their communities going forward.

We have to deal not only with shortages, but pockets of need. We also know that there's many students in urban areas that are in schools that are very under-resourced, and even if they might have a good teacher, the materials and resources that they have to do problem solving kinds of activities are just not there. So, we really need teachers that are going to be motivated to go into a variety of different classroom settings and be very skilled and comfortable in managing complex kinds of problem-solving activities in their classroom, whether it be rural and under-resourced or urban, or have a variety of different complexities to that teaching environment.

Chris Nelson:  So the buzzword on the University of Utah campus lately is collaboration. How do we think across colleges, how do we think across programs? And you’re a former dean of the College of Education. So talk about collaboration on this project and about your partners and how it's working.

Nancy Songer: I like to think about our community as the university, as the entire team that's involved in training excellent teachers. In other words, you can't just have faculty in the colleges of education. Sure, the faculty in the College of Education know a lot about how kids learn what kinds of problem-solving activities we would want to foster in classrooms, but we also need cooperation, and we have very strong cooperation, with College of Science faculty.

So professors of mathematics are going to help the prospective teachers to learn how we think about teaching mathematics, how we teach problem solving in mathematics. It's not just learning the foundations of mathematics or science, but really knowing how to be nimble and how to problem solve with that knowledge that the students are getting when they're becoming prospective teachers.

We also need to have very strong partnerships with local school districts. We have our students going into classrooms, local public schools, as early as their freshman year. They need multiple kinds of exposures and teaching opportunities on a small scale in order to feel very comfortable with becoming a classroom teacher by the time they graduate. So, it's this partnership that involves the community, local schools, and multiple colleges across the campus that really enable us to do the best training for prospective teachers.

Chris Nelson: So, this is an uninformed question, but my assumption is that someone goes into the College of Education, they want to be a teacher, they want to teach students, and they learn about some of the STEM fields or they learn about English and humanities. The other way that maybe you're proposing is also I'm a scientist, I'm a mathematician, I'm an engineer, and hey, maybe I want to be an educator as well. Talk about that in your experience and how this impacts kind of both ways to become a public educator.

Nancy Songer: Yeah. We're very excited to recruit the strong students, undergraduates who are strong in the sciences and mathematics, because they have a deep love for their discipline and they understand, again, some of the problem solving dimensions in a way that someone who doesn't have such a strong background in their field might not understand it.

So one thing we've noticed, of course, is that many of these math and science majors have opportunities, job prospects, that can be paying a lot more upon graduation than our education, our new teachers, might be getting. So, we are addressing this through scholarships, high quality scholarships that are covering all the tuition and fees of our students who are becoming prospective teachers for four years of their undergraduate major in mathematics or a science. And then also they get a teaching license. And if they wish they can get a master's degree in educational psychology within five years. So we will provide full tuition and fees during that entire period of study. So not only will you graduate and you will have ample jobs at a really good salary and good job stability upon graduation, but you will graduate ideally with no debt that you have to carry over into your career.

Chris Nelson: Well, that is great. Okay, so follow up question to that is you've been successful with financial funding. Talk about some of your sponsors, your donors.

Nancy Songer: Right. So, we currently have two funding sources and we're soliciting additional opportunities. The National Science Foundation has provided us with a Noyce Foundation grant, which provides $10,000 per student every year. That allows them, again, to not graduate with nearly as much debt. It also provides a cohort and a support system for these students as they are going into schools, as they're going through their program. And then it also provides three years of support in their first three years as a classroom teacher. So, this is a very unusual piece of support.

And what it's based on is that we know that many of our strongest teachers are not well suited for the first couple years in a classroom. They haven't developed all of the skills and flexibility that they need to be a comfortable teacher in a very complex environment. So, we provide coaching free of charge to any of our graduating teachers for the first three years of teaching as a part of our package of support. And this really, it's proving to be a very important way to help new teachers to be comfortable in their profession from the very first day they're in a classroom.

Chris Nelson: Right? Because you've got a pool of really smart people who know their stuff, but now they just need to know how to be educators, how to be teachers.

Nancy Songer: Yes, very much so. And it's a lot like becoming a professional in many other fields. You don't just learn to be a doctor by studying medicine. You have to go out and practice how you interact with patients, what kinds of supports your people need. And that's what this coaching does in those first three years of teaching.

Our second financial resource is a gift from the Emma Eccles Jones Foundation. And this has also provided fantastic cohort and mentoring and $10,000 a year tuition for everyone who wants to become a science or math teacher. So these two funding sources are actually providing very similar kinds of support that includes both a community of support, coaching and mentoring, as well as financial support to get you through into your first years of teaching.

Chris Nelson: And this, of course, is not just a Utah problem, this is a national problem. Is this a model for the nation? Is there a potential federal funding for this?

Nancy Songer: We see some other states actually providing support from the state government for these kinds of programs that are tuition, provide the tuition and fees for students. We think our program is stronger than most of the models we've seen out there for several reasons. First of all, we're not aware of anyone else who's not just supporting the students while they're becoming teachers, but in those first three years of teaching, that's a critical piece that allows them to be successful again and stay in the profession. And we also provide cohort, we have workshops while you're a new teacher.

We have more senior students who become mentors to the junior and sophomore and freshmen students in the program. And again, we have local teachers who are on our mentor teacher board who will also provide you with coaching and resources and actually networking to get your jobs in the kinds of schools where you would like to be positioned. So we believe this is a very comprehensive package of people and resources that's very community focused and really does take advantage of a lot of the resources that the U can provide to enable them to be strong in their very first years and beyond.

Chris Nelson: So, two audiences. I want to ask about students currently on our campus, and then the second audience are teachers who are already employed in Utah schools. And you've touched on this, but let's start with students on our campus. What's your message to students on our campus?

Nancy Songer: So, I think that there's some myths about what it means to become a teacher. I think it's a fantastic job when you talk to teachers and when you talk to the students who are in our program, they'll tell you that there's no better way to use your knowledge to have impact on someone's lives. I think we all can think about some teacher that had a pivotal role in our own career or our own life development. We all have that person, that very, very special teacher, that helped us think about ourselves differently and championed us in some way where maybe we didn't actually see our full potential. That's what teachers do. They make huge impact on individuals' lives, and there are some challenges, clearly education, and people are going through a lot of struggles right now, whether you're in a school or you're on a university campus or wherever. But we will provide you with the skills and that comprehensive team that will enable you to be successful.

Chris Nelson: Excellent. And for those teachers already employed in Utah schools?

Nancy Songer: So, we have many mentor teachers on our staff that provide this coaching and mentoring in those first three years. We also look to them for them to tell us what kinds of activities do you want your new teachers to have done when they're an undergraduate that will enable them to be a strong teacher, and what would make you hire them in your program? So we've done many interviews of that kind and I'm really proud, actually, of the extremely supportive community of experienced teachers that we have that are working with us to make this project successful.

Chris Nelson: So, I'm sure Mrs. Iverson from fifth grade at Ridgecrest Elementary is long since retired, but that was my teacher, that was who kind of gave me the self-confidence.

Nancy Songer: Absolutely!

Chris Nelson: And it's fun to think back through that. I also come from a long line of school teachers and I hear about all the challenges with parents and curriculum and administrators, but you're a former dean of education. You've got this new role as associate provost. Give us your pitch, give us your sales pitch, why it's a good time to be an educator.

Nancy Songer: Education changes lives. Your fifth-grade teacher, I'm sure you would say she changed your life in a significant way. This is a very important job. It's a very important time, and we know how to build those teachers that will be those really successful changemakers for kids of the future. So come join us. We'd love to have you. We have a very exciting program and we have more scholarships to give out than actually students that are taking them at this time. So we welcome your interest.

Chris Nelson: What is the work opportunity for teachers today, especially in Utah?

Nancy Songer: I think there's some misunderstandings about salary and the quality of a teaching job. The starting salary for new teachers in Salt Lake County is about $60,000, and that not only is a salary that will provide you with excellent benefits and resources, but you also do have some time during the summers that is not as intense. Obviously, you might want to do some workshops or professional learning, but you're not obligated to be in the classroom during the summer. So, for a job that has about a two-month break, it's actually a very good salary and it really is a high-quality job and career. Again, excellent benefits throughout your whole career. Really good stability in terms of job security and a fascinating environment that is promoting a lot of personal growth throughout your entire career.

Chris Nelson: What do listeners need to do? Where do they learn more?

Nancy Songer: Listeners can come to our website. The location is or our telephone number 801-581-6818.

Chris Nelson: Or just Google “Teach for Utah University of Utah,” I bet it comes up as well. Nancy, thank you for being our guest on U Rising.

Nancy Songer: Thank you so much.

Chris Nelson: Listeners. That's it for today's episode of U Rising. Our executive producer is Brooke Adams and our technical producer is Robert Nelson. I hope you'll tune in next time.

I'm Chris Nelson. Thanks for listening.