Miami-Dade school district wants to grow STEM from bottom up

Miami-Dade County’s hiring department may get 1,000 applications for an elementary school teacher position.

But when the nation’s fourth-largest district is looking for a high school chemistry teacher, it’s lucky to get 20.

In the race to educate more students in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — a major obstacle is finding enough qualified teachers.

“There’s always an opening, basically,” said Arlene Diaz, Miami-Dade’s director of instructional certification.

With growth in STEM jobs projected to outpace many other fields, the White House has called on American schools to graduate 1 million new students in fields like physics and biomedical engineering. To get there, the federal government says the U.S. needs 10,000 new STEM teachers every year for the next decade.

The effort, showered with hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and private partnerships, has been dubbed 100Kin10. And Miami-Dade is in the thick of it — launching new teacher training programs, certifications and tackling a major hurdle to recruitment: salary.

Perhaps the most promising initiative is taking place at Florida International University, which educates 35 percent of Miami-Dade’s teachers. In 2014, the university started FIUTeach, a chapter of a widely-recognized STEM teacher training and recruitment program that has shown incredible success across the country.

The national model, which began in Austin, Texas, is called UTeach. Now on 44 college campuses, the program allows STEM majors to graduate with a degree in their chosen field. But students also get a teaching certificate — without adding more time or cost to their studies.

At FIU, the goal is to hook STEM majors early on with a free, for-credit course.

“We’re recruiting students who never thought about teaching for the most part,” said Laird Kramer, founding director of FIU’s STEM Transformation Institute and a physics professor at the university. “They can try it out, no strings attached. Put your toes in the water.”

Once they’re signed up, students get placed in local classrooms right away, unlike traditional teacher training programs that don’t let students try their hand at a lesson until their junior year.

“I can talk about how great teaching is,” Kramer said. “But the real thing is they have to go out and evaluate it for themselves and say: ‘Hey, I didn’t realize how hard this was and how rewarding it is. I have to do this for the rest of my life.’”

The key to getting there, Kramer said, is to make sure students experience success in the classroom early on. To ensure that, FIUTeach students are paired with a highly-qualified FIU instructor, a hand-picked Miami-Dade teacher and a student peer.

Statistics show the model works. According to UTeach, 87 percent of program graduates become STEM teachers. With a retention rate of 76 percent, most graduates stick with the teaching profession.

The main obstacle FIUTeach professors say they face when recruiting new students: perceptions about the teaching profession.

“Teaching is not always highly-viewed upon in some cultures or some families,” said Vishodana Thamotharan, associate director of FIUTeach.

FIUTeach student Cynthia Nuñez decided to pursue a career in education “after much fighting with my parents.”

Nuñez, 21, fell in love with physics in high school and decided she wanted to study space one day. Her parents, both nurses, preferred she go into the medical field. But volunteering stints in hospitals had convinced Nuñez that the work wasn’t for her.

She continued studying physics at FIU and soon learned about FIUTeach. Though Nuñez had never considered a career in teaching, now it’s her passion and her parents have come around.

“I really enjoy teaching, but even going into the education program, I was still really skeptical. I was like, ‘I’m going to try it out,’” she said. “It made teaching such a good option and I’m set on it.”

Miami-Dade and FIU have partnered to guarantee students like Nuñez a job at graduation.

There is another major challenge the district faces in hiring new STEM teachers: the paycheck.

“At the end of the day, the elephant in the room is salary,” said Enid Weisman, Miami-Dade’s former head of human resources who is now a district consultant. “For people who are STEM-educated in software, life science, engineering — it’s hard to compete with the salaries they can get in those areas.”

A recent Georgetown University study found that STEM graduates have the highest starting salaries (about $43,000) while education majors were near the bottom ($30,000.) In Miami-Dade, starting teachers make $40,500.

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said teachers can boost their salary with an advanced degree.

“We’re doing our part,” he said. “I think more has to be done at both state and federal levels to incentivize those who have that type of training to join the teaching ranks.”

The school district said it plans to do more, like negotiating sign-on bonuses for STEM teachers. Virginia and other states have taken steps in that direction.

While much of the focus has been on recruiting and training new teachers, Miami-Dade is also looking to its current workforce, offering intense training for current teachers over the summer. The district has also partnered with FIU to offer new certificate programs in STEM areas and tuition reimbursement.

Looking even longer-term, FIU and Miami-Dade are taking a look at how students are being taught STEM subjects. FIUs STEM Transformation Institute studies how kids learn so teachers can deliver more effective and engaging instruction. The goal is to hook students on STEM so they’re inspired to study it in college.

And the university is working with Miami-Dade to make sure their curricula are aligned so public school graduates can pick up their STEM education right where they left off if they continue their studies at FIU.

“We know we have to grow STEM from the bottom up, pretty much,” Weisman said.

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