COE seeks to implement new STEM teacher preparation initiative

Endorsed by House Rep. Kathy Castor, the new initiative aims to prepare and satisfy the increased demand for STEM Education teachers in the local school districts. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/UNSPLASH

David Rosengrant’s affinity for playing realistic video game engines like “Rollercoaster Tycoon” led him to his eventual career of teaching physics in a style that best appealed to students in high school. 

Now an associate professor at USF, he hopes to encourage more individuals to teach STEM classes and engage students beyond textbooks through a proposed STEM teacher preparation initiative he’s coordinating at the St. Pete campus.

“When I was hired in 2016 to be the program coordinator for STEM Education, my initial task was to revise the degree programs we offered,” said Rosengrant. “The content was really good, but there were some logistical issues that were holding the program back a bit.”

Many of the degree programs failed to prepare teachers for diverse classroom settings, and Rosengrant took notice in 2016 along with assistant professor of mathematics Karina Hensberry. With a few setbacks along the way, they worked to develop an initiative to mold better, more resilient educators and hope to obtain funding this summer, according to Rosengrant. 

“We’re training educators for the classrooms they’re going to be teaching in,” said Rosengrant. “Understanding the demographics and putting an emphasis on that form of instruction is the best way to leave an impact on students.”

The initiative is intended to positively affect both current and aspiring STEM teachers in middle and high school education by providing funding for equipment, better curriculums for degree programs for aspiring teachers and ensuring they are prepared to work with students of varying demographics and socioeconomic status.

Future STEM educators will be trained for the benefit of non-English speaking students, schools in impoverished areas and students with learning or physical disabilities, according to Rosengrant.

He admitted that most students within STEM do not intend to go into education and many leave due to low salaries and large number of classes to prepare for, so the demand for STEM teachers is always high.

“Hillsborough and Pinellas are some of the largest school districts in the country,” said Rosengrant. “They hire about 100 teachers a year in middle and secondary STEM, and about half of those teachers leave within the first couple years.”

The STEM teacher preparation initiative aims to streamline existing degree programs within the College of Education (COE) to make the master’s program more enticing for prospective STEM teachers to meet the demands of Hillsborough and Pinellas County school districts.

Interim Dean of the COE Judith Ponticell wrote a one-page report requesting $1 million in funding from the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee. If granted by the House this summer, the money will supply salary supplements for newly hired teachers, pay for the schooling of teachers pursuing master’s degrees and internships for students to experience hands-on classroom teaching.

House Rep. Kathy Castor, who represents the Florida district that includes USF, personally endorsed the proposal and is currently championing for the COE to receive the proposed money, according to Rosengrant.

While the initiative originated from the St. Pete campus, all USF campuses are intended to receive the new curriculum for master’s and undergraduate STEM educator degrees under the consolidated campus introduced last year by USF President Steven Currall.

The program has experienced several setbacks. While consolidation will ensure STEM Education students across all campuses will receive access to the curriculum, it was at first troublesome to the process.

“[Consolidation] kind of put everything on freeze because we didn’t know what was going to happen,” said Rosengrant. “Having a new dean come in [to the COE] and a pandemic were also disruptive.”

Four potential new deans have been interviewed, leaving the leadership of the initiative as of yet undecided. 

With the fate of the initiative in the hands of the House of Representatives, Rosengrant is hopeful the COE will get the funding so his passion project can be implemented. 

“A couple things still need to be put in place,” said Rosengrant. “But with COVID behind us, when we get the budget behind us, that’s when we can start kicking things into high gear.”