NSF grant backs STEM educator program

To bolster the number and ability of STEM-prepared secondary education teachers in north Georgia, UNG is launching a cross-department collaboration this year backed by a $74,979 grant from the National Science Foundation.

The North Georgia Undergraduate Education Program, or NGagE, will involve faculty from the university’s departments of physics, chemistry, biology, computer science, and education. The project is under the direction of UNG faculty Drs. Mark Spraker, April Nelms (pictured below) and Sanghee Choi.

Information from the Georgia Professional Standards Commission shows that new teacher certification has declined 44 percent in Georgia from the 2007 school year to the 2014 school year.

Elementary and Middle school teachers come to learn 5E Lesson on Magnetism at UNG Science Eduation with Sanghee Choi, April Nelms and Mark Spraker.

“This decline has forced substitute teachers into classrooms instead of newly certified teachers and has taken a toll on the STEM discipline specifically, which was already experiencing a deficit in prepared teachers prior to the decline,” said Spraker, who is the project’s principal investigator. “While the large districts in the Atlanta metro area are not as impacted by this deficit, rural areas are increasingly having difficulty recruiting quality teachers in the STEM disciplines. UNG is in a unique position to serve this need through the NGagE program with campuses in five locations serving 30 of the most northern counties in rural Georgia.”

Dr. Rob Brown, superintendent for Lumpkin County Schools, has seen the need first-hand in his school district and said that it could impact schools across Georgia.

“We have experienced a huge shortage in STEM teachers, and we anticipate that in the next few years we will continue to be challenged in finding highly qualified science and math teachers,” Brown said. “As we move into the future, the entire state will face this shortage, especially in math. We need to do everything we can to grow in this area.”

Dr. Sheri Hardee, associate dean of UNG’s College of Education, noted that with fewer students majoring in secondary education, programs focused on recruitment and retention are critical. The program also proposes to require more intensive internships, providing students the opportunity to work with local teachers to implement innovative STEM methods into the classroom.

Choi, Nelms and Spraker have made a tremendous impact on STEM education in the north Georgia region over the past few years. Under the direction of Nelms, the trio secured a grant of more than $320,000 from the state Department of Education to support PSCI-Train, a program created to increase elementary students’ science achievement by strengthening their teachers’ content knowledge and teaching skills. Nelms also helped bring Georgia Youth Science & Technology Centers Inc. to UNG’s Blue Ridge Campus this summer for STEM Discovery Camp, an event for third-through fifth-graders that allowed students to explore topics and careers in STEM.