We Teach MO fast-tracks science, math majors into teacher certification

nicolle vonderheyde

Graduate student Nicolle von der Heyde presents We Teach MO to a packed biology seminar. (Photos by August Jennewein)

In the summer of 2012, Nicolle von der Heyde traveled to the Gulf of Mexico with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to study the Deepwater Horizon oil spill as part of the Teacher at Sea program. As the NOAA ship cruised through the dark red oil slick, von der Heyde contemplated the tragic environmental impact of the spill.

Von der Heyde, a University of Missouri–St. Louis graduate student, studied the effects of catastrophic pollution on reef fish over a span of two weeks and even collected samples from a dead whale. On her return to port, she observed tankers snuffing methane gas fires and attempting to contain further spillage from the wrecked oil rig.

Witnessing the devastating effects of the oil spill motivated von der Heyde in using innovative strategies to teach her eighth grade class at Hazelwood East (Mo.) Middle School.

“I developed a lesson plan around my experiences and had students participate in an oil spill simulation project,” von der Heyde said. “We built a contamination site and shoreline with pie pans, sand, cocoa powder and vegetable oil. They researched different methods for cleanup and used materials like Dawn dish detergent and clumps of dog hair to help disperse or soak up the oil. There was even a hurricane that came into the Gulf that year, so I had a fan, and as the students were cleaning up, I would walk by and blow wind on their sites.”

Nicolle von der Heyde

Nicolle von der Heyde

While pursuing a PhD in education at UMSL, von der Heyde has combined her interest in scientific research with a passion for teaching to impact her students.

Perhaps in an ideal world, all beginning educators would possess von der Heyde’s depth of subject-specific knowledge and experience. Yet it appears the time commitment and difficulty of earning both a degree in a science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) related field and a teaching certificate has contributed to the shortage of highly qualified science and math teachers at the secondary level in St. Louis.

According to the National Center for Education, more than 32 percent of secondary math teachers and 19 percent of high school science teachers are now teaching subjects in which they have no undergraduate major, minor or specialized training. NCE statistics further illustrate that St. Louis in particular is having difficulty keeping up with the turnover rate of STEM teachers due to retirements, attrition and other factors.

The UMSL College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Education have combined resources to change this trend with the We Teach MO program.

We Teach MO enables undergraduates to earn both a bachelor’s degree from the College of Arts and Sciences and a teacher certification in biology, chemistry, physics or math within 138 credit hours.

Co-directors of the new program include Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor Chuck Granger, Orthwein Endowed Professor of Lifelong Learning Keith Miller and Department of Mathematics and Computer Science Chair Haiyan Cai.

“We will recruit STEM majors who like the idea of teaching, but who either cannot afford the cost or extra time needed for teacher certification,” said Granger.

Miller believes We Teach MO will succeed by looking beyond the statistics.

“We’re not just looking for more numbers,” he said. “We’re looking for better teachers who love seeing kids learn. We’re giving our STEM undergrads a free one-hour course where they learn from good teachers and then try it out.”

Von der Heyde will also be an integral part of We Teach MO. She will serve as a pedagogy instructor, mentor to STEM teachers and secondary school liaison.

“I’m good at making connections with students,” she said. “I want to offer them support similar to the support I’ve received from the UMSL community. I’m so excited to be a part of We Teach Mo and prepare quality teachers to go out there and perform.”

The application deadline for We Teach MO is Sept. 4. For more information about the program, write to Chuck Granger at grangerch@umsl.edu.

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