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Chattanooga: Creating Whiz Kids

July 10, 2008

By Beverly Carroll and Dave Flessner, Chattanooga Times/Free Press, Tenn.

Jul. 10–At age 11, Jordan McGuffee already is a veteran space traveler, and this week she commanded her first mission to the moon — at least in the simulated world at the UTC Challenger Center.

Like many of her middle-school peers in the “Cosmic Space Quest” camps this summer, Jordan says she hopes someday to work in navigational systems for the real NASA.

“This is my favorite camp, and I’ve loved coming here ever since I went on my first field trip,” the Baylor sixth grader said.

The Challenger Center was built in Chattanooga nearly 13 years ago to spark such interest in math, science and technical fields in Tennessee children often discouraged by or directed away from the fields.

Although more than 110,000 students have gone through the Challenger Center since 1995, most students going to Tennessee colleges and universities still avoid math, science and engineering programs. According to the U.S. Department of Education, only about one of every six college students in Tennessee and Georgia enroll in science, technology, engineering or math degree programs, even though experts predict a looming shortage of talent in such fields.

“Unfortunately, we saw a decline in college students pursuing degrees in the sciences and engineering after we quit going to the moon, and now we face a huge challenge in getting the talent we need to keep America competitive,” said Dr. Arlene Garrison, a chemist who serves as assistant vice president for research at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

In its 2005 strategic plan, the University of Tennessee set a goal of having 20 percent of its students graduate with science, math and engineering degrees. But last year only 12.5 percent of the graduates from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and 19.5 percent of the graduates from UT had degrees in such fields.

Dr. David Millhorn, executive vice president at the University of Tennessee, said Tennessee lags the U.S. average in the percentage of college graduates in math, science and engineering despite the presence of research facilities such as the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the UT Space Institute and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

“We’ve got to find a way to get more students excited about these fields,” he told participants at a recent Tennessee Valley Corridor Summit in Huntsville, Ala.

Dr. Greg Sedrick, chief information officer at the UT Space Institute, previously headed a federally funded workforce alliance in Chattanooga that tried to entice more students into technical fields. The goal was to help replace the thousands of baby boomer engineers retiring in the region from the Department of Energy, NASA and TVA.

“We made some progress, but there is still a huge need to do more if America is going to stay on the cutting edge of new technology,” Dr. Sedrick said.

new initiatives

Both the state of Tennessee and federal agencies have launched new efforts over the past year to help boost math and science instruction in schools and to entice more students into technical training programs.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a former Secretary of Education and president of the University of Tennessee, last year championed the America COMPETES (Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science) Act to direct more federal grants and aid to math, science and engineering programs.

In Tennessee, the state school board has added extra math requirements for high school graduation and provided some Basic Education Program funding for local school districts to pay bonuses for hard-to-fill teaching positions in math and science.

Dr. Katherine N. High, interim vice president of academic affairs at the University of Tennessee, said she hopes the four-year high school math requirements recently adopted by the state board of education will help boost math and science interest and performance in Tennessee colleges.

Boosting the number of students in engineering and science programs is a goal of UTC, but university Chancellor Phillip Oldham said such training “has got to start before students come to us.”

“One initiative that I want to get going is a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) initiative to work with K-12 education to help train the next generation of teachers in science and mathematics to improve that pipeline, and I think we have some real opportunities to do that at UTC,” he said.

Last year, for instance, only 12 high school teachers with physics concentrations applied for licenses in Tennessee, according to the state Department of Education.

“Many of our teachers of math and sciences weren’t trained in math and sciences and many of them, I promise you, will not have the passion for a field like chemistry or mathematics that a person who had a degree in those fields would have,” Dr. Millhorn said.

differentiated teacher pay

Cheryl Umberger, communications director for the Tennessee Education Association, said the state is accepting funding proposals this summer from districts proposing to offer bonuses to fill key teaching vacancies.

“There are many districts struggling to fill high-demand teaching positions such as in math or science, and hopefully these bonuses may help,” she said. “But our concern about differentiated pay is that we can’t afford to divert what limited funds we do have to pay some people more when we are not even competitive in pay for others compared to our neighboring states.”

Nonetheless, UT President John Peterson recently suggested that elementary and secondary schools should do as the university does — pay teachers in math and science more than those in other disciplines. Dr. Peterson said Tennessee needs the best math and science teachers it can get in elementary and high schools to spur more student interest in technical studies.

“We’ve got to generate that interest and culture shift to recognize that this is the future of our state and this region,” he said.

Polk County school administrators already use extra state dollars to supplement salaries for math and science teachers, said Joel Cox, principal of Polk County High School.

“We’ve tried to use our extended contract for folks in math and science,” Mr. Cox said, referring to former Gov. Lamar Alexander’s statewide merit-pay plan for teachers.

Adopted in 1984, the program used evaluations and professional development to establish rungs, or levels of proficiency, that were linked with financial and professional rewards. Teachers earned certifications, with Level III being the highest, and salary supplements started at $1,000 and could go as high as $7,000. Though now defunct, money still is available for those who qualify, including funds to pay career-ladder teachers to do work beyond their regular contracts.

“That’s the only money we have,” said Mr. Cox, who said math instructors often are lured away to better-paying jobs in banking or real estate. “It opened it up for (the teachers) to gain a little more money, but they are also doing a little more work for us.”

Cindy Moss, a Polk County math teacher given the extra pay, ran a tutoring lab at 7 a.m. each school day. The additional tutoring boosted student achievement in math scores on the standardized state test scores, Mr. Cox said.

Educators agree that the early grades are the place to spark an interest in math and science.

“Elementary teachers are afraid of equations, but they are doing equations every day,” said Cherie Swader, principal of Dade County Elementary School. “We have increased expectations and rigor (in math and sciences), and now what we have to do is start in kindergarten and move up. We can’t wait until middle and high school.”

Dade Elementary, for instance, is adding a math coach to the staff, she said.

“She was our academic coach,” Ms. Swader said. “Now she will be that math teacher that lots of times you don’t find in the elementary schools.”

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