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UW Programs Lead STEM Students to Teaching Careers

October 29, 2015
two women holding hand-made wooden signs
Tonya Busse, left, from Klawock, Alaska, and Mendi Maes, of Rock Springs, display a project they completed during a Wyoming Interns to Teacher Scholars summer internship at Sinks Canyon State Park. The animal track guessing game can be seen in the “Kids’ Corner” of the state park’s visitor center. (Mendi Maes Photo)

Mendi Maes’ love of science, coupled with a desire to work with children, led her to the Wyoming Interns to Teacher Scholars (WITS) program at the University of Wyoming.

WITS is a National Science Foundation (NSF) Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship program that covers tuition and housing to help science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors to become elementary school teachers. Another NSF Noyce grant-funded program at UW, Sustaining Wyoming’s Advancing Reach in Mathematics and Science (SWARMS), offers funding to STEM majors who want to obtain their 6-12 teaching certificates.

The two Noyce programs collaborate with the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Education, the College of Engineering and Applied Science, the Science and Mathematics Teaching Center (SMTC), Central Wyoming College and Western Wyoming Community College.

WITS scholars, like Maes, earn dual degrees -- one in a STEM major (mathematics, biology, chemistry, geology or computer science) and one in elementary education. The program leads to K-6 teaching certification.

Maes first learned about WITS through her advisers at Western Wyoming Community College. The single mother was looking for a means to reach her educational goals.

“After evaluating my interests and motivations, I decided to apply for the scholarships,” the junior transfer from Rock Springs says. “When presented with an opportunity to complete my education with the backing of such a great scholarship cohort, it was a dream come true for me and my children.”

The WITS program offers training and summer research internships during the sophomore year of college. Scholarship support is available to students during their junior, senior and fifth years of study. Additionally, WITS scholarships are available to graduates and professionals who hold bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields and who want to teach in elementary schools.

SWARMS covers tuition and fees up to 18 credit hours per semester during a student’s senior year. Additionally, the program covers tuition and fees for a student’s three semesters of the postbaccalaureate program to obtain secondary teaching certification. Those who hold degrees in STEM fields and want to teach also can receive funding.

Like its counterpart, SWARMS aims to increase the number of qualified science and mathematics certified teachers. Undergraduate STEM majors, graduates of STEM fields, military veterans with relevant STEM backgrounds, minorities and nontraditional students are encouraged to apply to the program.

“One of the reasons that there is a national NSF push with Noyce is to try to get rich content backgrounds and people who are interested in teaching, and give them pathways into the classroom,” says Andrea Burrows, a UW assistant professor of secondary education and the principal investigator for the SWARMS NSF Noyce grant. “It’s, in a way, kind of an alternative certification, in the sense that they don’t have to follow the traditional undergraduate education coursework. They could do STEM coursework and then do the teaching certification.”

man looking in a book in front of a computer screen

Leland Hepworth, a senior mathematics major from Casper, works on a computer coding project. Hepworth is a scholar in the Sustaining Wyoming’s Advancing Reach in Mathematics and Science program. (Andrea Burrows Photo)

“SWARMS appealed to me because I could take more math-intensive courses in a mathematics degree program than I could in a mathematics education degree program,” says Leland Hepworth, a senior mathematics major from Casper who is in the second SWARMS cohort.

Hepworth will complete his bachelor’s degree, and then enter the postbaccalaureate program to obtain a teaching certificate in mathematics secondary education.

In addition to receiving financial assistance, WITS and SWARMS scholars can benefit from a variety of mentoring resources.

“The Noyce programs are not only about completing courses and other requirements, but they are about developing valuable communication and social skills that are required for teachers,” says Ramesh Sivanpillai, a research scientist with the UW Department of Botany and the Wyoming Geographic Information Science Center, and a co-principal investigator for the WITS NSF Noyce grant. “WITS has identified faculty mentors at UW and host families in the community for each scholar. While mentors help the scholars to navigate and develop valuable skills, host families are available to provide support beyond classroom activities.”

Mentoring plays a major role in the SWARMS program as well.

“The model is that the cohorts who have graduated will continue to interact in various forums so that they can support the students who are going through,” Burrows says. “Those students can ask questions and, then, when they graduate, they become mentors for new students.”

Kali Nicholas, a master’s student from Riverton and a graduate of the first SWARMS cohort, says SWARMS provided her with opportunities to make contacts within her field and attend science education workshops and conferences.

“SWARMS provided an online chat forum offering discussion, support and a line of communication,” Nicholas says. “SWARMS also funded attendance to the regional Noyce conference, which provided much motivation, contacts and educational resources.”

Scholars from both the SWARMS and WITS programs will attend the Western Regional Noyce Conference in San Diego Nov. 13-15.

Scholarship recipients are required to teach, either at the elementary or secondary level, for two years in a high-need school district for each year of scholarship support. A high-need school district is defined as a school district that serves an elementary or secondary school characterized by a high percentage of individuals from families with incomes below the poverty level; a high percentage of teachers not teaching in the content area in which they were trained to teach; or a high teacher turnover rate. Scholarship recipients must fulfill the teaching requirement within eight years after graduation.

Kyle Holloway, of Hot Springs, S.D., says he knew he wanted to pursue the postbaccalaureate program in education after earning his bachelor’s degree in mathematics. The SWARMS program was a good fit.

“SWARMS was wonderful,” Holloway says. “It was nice to have the opportunity to wrap up my program within a year from starting. It was a lot of work, but most definitely worth the time and effort involved.”

A graduate of the first SWARMS cohort, he now teaches high school math in Unalaska, Alaska.

“If you are considering the postbaccalaureate route and love to teach, then the SWARMS program is a great choice,” he adds.

Application deadlines are nearing for the next round of SWARMS and WITS scholarships. The deadline to apply for a SWARMS scholarship is Friday, Nov. 20. Applications for WITS scholarships are due Sunday, Jan. 31.

More information about the SWARMS program and an online application are available at www.uwswarms.org. Those interested in starting the postbaccalaureate program in summer 2016 must complete some prerequisite courses. For more information, call Burrows at (307) 766-6735 or email aburrow1@uwyo.edu.

To learn more about the WITS program or to apply for a scholarship, visit www.witsnoyce.com. For more information, call Jacqueline Leonard, director of the SMTC and the principal investigator for the WITS NSF Noyce grant, at (307) 766-3776 or email jleona12@uwyo.edu.


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