Your Turn: KU must reverse disastrous decision regarding STEM program

I am writing as a Kansan, a mother and as a biology professor at the University of Kansas. I am tremendously concerned by the proposed elimination of the UKanTeach program at KU. This program prepares high school teachers in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math).

I take my role as a teacher seriously. During my 32 years at KU, I have been fortunate to have been honored for my contributions. I don’t like to “toot my own horn,” but here are some of my teaching credentials: I am a Chancellors Club Teaching Professor and winner of a W. T. Kemper Fellowship for Teaching Excellence, Michael Young Academic Advisor Award and TIAA-CREF Excellence in Teaching Award, among others. In 2018, Provost Neeli Bendapudi told me she featured me as an “exemplar of faculty excellence” at a Board of Regents meeting. Importantly, if I truly am an excellent teacher, much of this is because of my nearly 10-year association with the UKanTeach program, where I co-teach a “Research Methods” course.

These are my concerns:

1. Kansas has a serious problem in recruiting and retaining STEM K-12 teachers. The UKanTeach program is part of an outstanding national program (UTeach) that takes a novel and successful approach to preparing future science and math teachers. Students earn both a degree in their area of specialty (biology, chemistry, etc.) as well as a teaching certificate. This leads to higher recruitment and retention of STEM teachers, and Kansas students gain teachers with a deeper knowledge of their discipline. Kansas is the second oldest of over 40 programs around the country; elimination of this program has sent shock waves nationwide in STEM education circles.

2. Reportedly, the School of Education will take up the slack in STEM teacher preparation. There are significant issues. The school currently lacks a program in science secondary teaching. The innovative UKanTeach materials are copyrighted and not transferable, so they can’t simply be used by the school. Most significantly, students in the UKanTeach program want a disciplinary degree, not a teaching degree; there will be terrific attrition for years as the school invents a new program. Kansas cannot tolerate the reduction in STEM teachers that will accompany a huge loss in momentum associated with elimination of the UKanTeach program.

3. I recall when Kansas was ridiculed worldwide following the 1999 state board of education decision de-emphasizing evolution. KU took the lead in overcoming these obstacles and developed a world-class STEM teaching program, including UKanTeach. Several UKanTeach graduates have gone on to win state and national awards and are literally transforming science and math education at the secondary school level. The success of the UKanTeach program is not just their curriculum but also the way they build support for their students as they leave KU and become teachers themselves; such support is critical in reducing teacher burnout, a major problem in the K-12 schools.

4. It appears likely that the decision to eliminate the UKanTeach program was made because it was “easy”– terminating a program staffed by Master Teachers (without tenure) is simpler than a program with tenured faculty. The interim dean who made this decision did not seek input from college faculty members. All was done in a rushed manner. The often-quoted “$1 million cost” to the university of UKanTeach is an exaggeration.

5. Given the cross-university nature of STEM teaching, the best solution appears to be to reinstate the UKanTeach program within the undergraduate studies division of the provost office. I encourage the university to take this step.

I love my research and other parts of my job, but my involvement in UKanTeach is what made me feel like I had an immediate and positive contribution to society. I am shocked that the university to which I have devoted over 30 years of my life has made a decision that will have devastating statewide implications for decades. For the sake of the children of Kansas, I urge those in a position to do so to reverse this unfortunate decision.

— Helen Alexander is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas.


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