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CalTeach brings STEM students into K-12 classrooms

From the time Elizabeth Pierson was 7 and her parents came downstairs to find her in the kitchen mixing baking soda and vinegar — dressed in a raincoat, swimming goggles and rubber gloves — the UC Berkeley senior knew she wanted to be a scientist.

As a youngster, Pierson would accompany her father, the director of a science institute, to talks on astrobiology and astronomy, which “I didn’t understand but was still totally excited by,” she said. She dreamed of being a marine biologist and, later, of studying genetics. Ultimately, she chose a major in molecular biology with a concentration in human health.

In her sophomore year, Pierson, a dean’s list student, discovered that although she loved the material, she didn’t like being “cooped up” in a lab. Even so, “I probably would’ve stayed on the research track because I didn’t have any other vision for myself.” Then she received an email about courses that explored science through the lens of K-12 teaching. She hoped they might provide a fresh perspective. What she found was something much greater: a calling.

“I have a passion for service, but I didn’t see where that could merge with my career,” Pierson said. “When I actually got into the classroom, I realized how much of a social justice opportunity there is.”

Pierson is among the first cohort of students to complete a pioneering program in California that enables majors in the so-called STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — to become credentialed teachers at the same time they complete their undergraduate degree.

Available at UC Berkeley and UC Irvine, the expedited credentialing program is part of a systemwide program called CalTeach. Offered in varying ways at all nine undergraduate UC campuses, CalTeach aims to bring bright and motivated students with specialized knowledge in math and science disciplines into classrooms where they are desperately needed.

Rather than producing teachers who are qualified to teach the subjects — or, as is often the case, teachers credentialed in other subjects who are tapped to fill gaps in math and science — “We are producing mathematicians, scientists and engineers who have chosen to teach,” said engineering professor George Johnson, who is co-director of Berkeley CalTeach.

Quality education in the STEM fields is viewed as critical to building a highly skilled workforce and to providing students with a foundation of knowledge that can enable their professional and academic success. Yet those disciplines often are the most poorly taught.

For the complete story by Nicole Freeling, UCOP communications coordinator for academic affairs, go to the UC Newsroom.

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