BYU STEM education majors help fill Utah’s teacher void

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Physics teaching professor Duane Merrell participates in a demonstration with his students. Merrell specializes in secondary physical science education. (Duane Merrell)

BYU’s Math and Science Education departments are among the top programs in the nation. But despite the programs’ high graduation rates, Utah is still in desperate need of teachers in public schools, especially STEM (science and math) teachers.

The shortage of math and science teachers is not new. “It’s been around for years,” said Blake Peterson, the BYU chair of mathematics education.

Teacher graduation rates have plummeted across the country in recent years. The U.S. Department of Education said there has been a 30 percent drop in teachers actively teaching from 2008 to 2012.

Utah teachers face the lowest per-student funding in the nation despite the rapidly increasing student population.

The Utah State Office of Education reported the number of students enrolled in public school has increased by about 11,200 students each year for the past five years. This represents a 1.8 percent increase in the public student population each year.

BYU physics teaching professor Duane Merrell said there are about 15 to 20 students who graduate from BYU’s physical science teaching program each year. This may seem low, but BYU has produced more physics-certified teachers than any other school in the nation over the last 12 years.

Peterson said there are approximately 45 students who graduate with a math education teaching degree every year and 200 current students in the program.

He also said the professors he meets at conferences and other universities often express envy of BYU’s excellent math education program.

Both Merrell and Peterson acknowledge Utah’s teaching shortage in STEM fields despite high enrollment numbers in the programs.

Peterson said one reason for the shortage of STEM teachers is the number of lucrative alternative careers students can pursue outside of teaching.  The Utah State Office of Education reported the average yearly salary for teachers in Utah was $46,689 for the last school year, a pay cut compared to the $50,659 average during the 2013-2014 school year. In contrast, students who graduate with a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field and pursue non-teaching careers earn an average yearly salary of $66,123, according to Teach.com.

Merrell said he admires students who are in math and science programs and still choose to pursue teaching degrees.

“I’m just amazed at the moral fiber these students have, to go into teaching in a world that doesn’t value that profession very much,” Merrell said. “These students value other young people’s lives. They choose it because they know the difference it can make in a kid’s life.”

Another reason the program’s graduates don’t transition into teaching jobs in Utah is the transitory nature of BYU students. Many leave to teach in other areas of the country due to the high demand for graduates of BYU’s math and science education programs.

“Our graduates go all over — Canada, California, all over Utah, Virginia, D.C. and other places,” Merrell said. “They go often back to where they came from, and they also go all over the world.”

Peterson also said many of BYU’s math education students often quit after a few years of working in the field for family reasons.

“About 75 percent of our majors in the math education department are female, and many of them stop teaching fairly quickly after graduation in order to start a family,” Peterson said.

Despite the shortage in STEM teachers, students like junior Victoria Bailey still view the field as a rewarding career and plan to teach in Utah following graduation. Bailey is majoring in physical education and minoring in math education because it’s easier to find a job with a STEM minor.

“Math is one of those subjects that people go into with a fixed mindset of thinking they’re good at it or not,” Bailey said. “But if you simplify it down so they can grasp it, it’s an amazing experience and really appeals to me.”