Wanted: A Few Good STEM teachers

NSF grant to help train educators for middle and high schools.


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Stephen Bismarck, associate professor of middle level/secondary mathematics

The University of South Carolina Upstate, in partnership with Spartanburg Community College (SCC) and Spartanburg County schools, is launching a new initiative to address the region’s need for qualified science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) educators.

In June, the university announced the project “Bridging Pathways for the Preparation of Highly Qualified Mathematics and Science Teachers.” The project, funded by a five-year $1.2 million National Science Foundation (NSF) Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program grant, will provide scholarships and other opportunities for at least 21 students pursuing a dual undergraduate degree in STEM and secondary education.

Stephen Bismarck, associate professor of middle level/secondary mathematics education at USC Upstate and the project’s lead investigator, said the initiative is especially timely given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its negative impact on the education system statewide. It also presents individuals working in STEM fields hit hard by the economic fallout of the pandemic with an opportunity to pursue teaching as a second career, he said.

“What we typically see during a recession or significant downturn in the economy is an inrush of folks who want to be teachers,” Bismarck says.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for folks who may already have a degree in a STEM field,” he adds. “Some folks have always wanted to teach. Maybe others are working from home while helping their kids with schoolwork and are thinking, ‘Hey, I can do this!’ Whatever the reason, there is a great need for this and we have created a pathway.”

Participants in the project will each receive an $11,688 scholarship each year for up to three years. Additionally, there will be paid internship experiences available for students at USC Upstate and SCC to work with middle and high school students.

“One of the biggest worries for people considering returning to school is how they’re going to pay for it,” Bismarck says. “Maybe you’re a veteran and your GI Bill benefits are running out. A couple of extra years of tuition might make all the difference in the world … There is the potential here for you to receive nearly $35,000 in scholarship funding.”

Bismarck says the project will have two cohorts. There are six slots remaining for the first cohort in July 2021. Eleven students will be selected for July 2022. Current students are eligible, but Bismarck says nontraditional students are also welcome.

Stem Majors chart

Grant funds not used for scholarships will be applied to internship stipends and conference travel expenses for the scholars, and compensation for project team members, he says.

The program will host a STEM camp for area high school students during the summer of 2021 at SCC, Bismarck says.

“We believe these experiences will act as a catalyst for additional STEM majors to seriously consider the teaching profession,” he says. “This opportunity will allow these highly qualified teachers to enter the profession with little to no debt.”

Once Noyce scholars graduate and are hired by a school, USC Upstate will require them to attend monthly pedagogical seminars during the school year and summer for the first two years of their teaching careers. The seminars will focus on addressing the socio-emotional needs and challenges facing high-need schools.

Co-principal investigators on the project are USC Upstate faculty members Chris Bender, associate professor of chemistry; Kimberly Shorter, assistant professor of biology; Ryan Harper, mathematics instructor and director of tutoring; and Nancy Addison, adjunct instructor.

SCC faculty members participating in the project are Sarah Kitts, Brandon Kinley, and Linda Schmidt.

Dorman High School and High Point Academy will be part of the project, but activities for the grant will be open to all Spartanburg County school districts, Bismarck says.

“As a former high school teacher for five years, I am always excited to see opportunities where our terrific local schools and USC Upstate can work together on a project,” says USC Upstate Provost David Schecter.

Taking it a step further

In December, USC Upstate awarded master’s degrees to 81 local teachers, the largest-ever number of graduate degrees awarded by the university in a single semester.

These graduates were part of USC Upstate’s M.Ed. in applied learning and instruction program, begun in 2019. The program began with a partnership between the university’s School of Education, Human Performance, and Health (SoEHPH) and Spartanburg Districts 3, 5 and 6 to address the looming teacher shortage, improve teacher retention and provide meaningful professional development to area teachers.

Cohorts of teachers are selected by their districts to participate in the program — their tuition is supported by their district throughout their graduate studies at USC Upstate. The program enables teachers from each district to move through their studies as a group and complete their degree within two years while continuing to work full-time in the classroom.

Teacher photo

“We knew South Carolina had a future teacher shortage prior to the pandemic,” says Dr. Laura Reynolds, dean of SoEHPH. “We simply don’t have enough teachers in the pipeline to meet the demand we will see for teachers in our state during the next five years.”

“Programs like the M.Ed. offer a mechanism to help teachers stay in the classroom and attract the best teachers to our region,” Reynolds adds.

Since the M.Ed. program’s inception, Spartanburg School Districts 1,2 and 7, as well as school districts in Cherokee and Laurens Counties, have established graduate cohorts.

That means there is potential for Noyce scholars who go to work in one of those partner districts after they’ve earned their bachelor’s teaching degree, to also obtain their master’s degree and accumulate little to no debt.

“It’s very exciting for us to be in this position,” Bismarck says. “We have an opportunity to not only advance the university’s mission, but to positively impact our community at a critical time of need.”