California Program Grooms Math, Science Teachers for Urban K-12 Schools

Stephanie Morgado remembers the eye-opening moment as a University of California, Berkeley freshman when she decided to become a science teacher: Classmates building scale models of the solar system for an assignment portrayed Earth as the biggest planet—not realizing Jupiter is biggest. A lifelong science buff, Morgado was appalled that high-achieving students held gross misconceptions like this but realized she could bring science to life in the classroom to enlighten young students.

She earned her secondary teaching credential last December through “Cal Teach,” an accelerated teacher preparation program aimed at putting more math and science educators into urban middle and high schools. As Cal Teach’s first graduate, Morgado, who earned a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics, now teaches geology, physics and environmental science at a California high school where Hispanic, Filipino and Black students are almost as numerous as Whites.

This past academic year, Cal Teach enrolled 250 students—32 percent White, 30 percent Asian, 21 percent Hispanic and 4 percent Black—who took courses such as “Classroom Interactions in Science and Math: A Focus on Equity and Urban Schools” and “It’s Elementary! Exploring Math With Young Students.” Cal Teach is limited to undergraduates who are math, science and engineering majors. Some may opt not to teach full-time, but “teaching crosses many careers, and we want them capable of increasing public understanding of science,” says Dr. Nicci Nunes, a chemist who runs the Cal Teach program.

Supported by a National Math and Science Initiative grant, Cal Teach was replicated from a University of Texas at Austin “UTeach” program established in 1997. Replications like Cal Teach are now at more than 20 institutions nationally, including Temple, Northern Arizona and Cleveland State universities.

Like the others, Cal Teach grooms future teachers by letting science, math and engineering majors earn a teaching credential in as little as four years. Students simultaneously learn content knowledge in their majors as well as pedagogical skills; the latter includes field experience in public schools. Traditional teacher preparation programs are a year or two longer, Nunes says, meaning students usually rack up more debt.

For field experience, Cal Teach sends its students to disadvantaged schools where lab equipment is outdated or nonexistent. Some are in areas not served by public transit. And some areas are so riddled with crime that, when police pursue an armed suspect there, the schools go into lockdown.

However, teaching in such schools can still be gratifying, Morgado says.

The daughter of Cuban immigrants, Morgado used her Spanish skills during her Cal Teach stint to modify curriculum for fourth-graders with limited English. “During lessons about electricity, the kids struggled because they didn’t know terms like ‘light switch.’ So I wrote worksheets to build their science vocabulary.”

Nunes, who visited Morgado’s high school classes several months ago, believes her ethnicity has helped students engage more with the coursework. “The Hispanic girls didn’t hesitate to come up after class,” Nunes says.

Last year, President Barack Obama publicly praised the UTeach program and its younger counterparts. He said this country’s future hinges on “reaffirming its role as the world’s engine of scientific discovery and technological innovation,” adding that such leadership requires robust education in STEM subjects.

While Cal Teach remains in its infancy, its counterparts across the nation already have attracted more than 2,100 science and math majors. Among graduates around the country, 92 percent have become public school teachers and after five years, 82 percent remain educators while the national retention rate is less than 65 percent, according to the National Math and Science Initiative.

Morgado already envisions herself teaching long-term. “I really love the challenge,” she adds.