With good reason, there has been a great deal of attention over the past two decades on the structures and strategies of STEM teacher education, particularly in regard to the preparation of teacher candidates for high-need schools and diverse student populations through well-designed coursework and fieldwork components of teacher education programs (Anderson & Stillman, 2013; Fortney et al., 2019; Larkin, 2014; Mensah, 2019; Stroupe et al., 2020). Yet running a scholarship program for prospective STEM teachers within an existing teacher education program comes with its own set of challenges, and requires taking a step back from the specific programmatic details in order to recruit, advise, and mentor teacher candidates into their profession.
Since 2013, we have led the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Track 1 Montclair State University Noyce Science Teacher Scholarship program (DUE #1339956), which has supported the preparation of 33 biology, chemistry, physics, earth science, and (in our final year) mathematics teacher candidates as well.[i] Over this time, we have had our share of challenges and successes, and in this blog, we wish to share some of our lessons learned in the hope that these will assist others running their own STEM scholarship programs.
Our hope in securing the Noyce Track 1 funding was that it would unlock a pre-existing yet untapped source of potential science teachers. Though our grant did not result in a tidal surge of science teacher applicants, we were able to successfully recruit great candidates through our interactions with all undergraduate prospective science teachers at Montclair. In these discussions, our Noyce program tended to be most attractive to those who were already leaning in the direction of becoming science teachers, were driven to make a positive difference in schools, yet were still looking for guidance and support.
We used a wide variety of strategies to get the word out about our program to students. We visited places where potential science teachers might be, such as freshman seminars. We also met students individually and in smaller groups, like clubs for science majors, where they asked questions they might not have posed in larger settings.
Active partnerships across the university have been important for our program both in recruiting and preparation, and our teacher education admissions department has also been an essential partner. We have also developed good working relationships with faculty advisors and colleagues in both the College of Education and Human Services and the College of Science and Mathematics, who know to send any student who expresses an interest in becoming a science teacher our way. These relationships were developed and nurtured in two ways. First, our teacher education programs require an admissions interview, and for undergraduates, this is conducted by a pair of faculty members, one from the student’s major and one from the College of Education and Human Services. In this way, faculty from across the university have gotten to know one another over the years. Second is that our administration and faculty have held a number of STEM education focused meetings—including STEM summits, campus speakers, curriculum conversations, and a STEM education conference—that have permitted us to bridge a historically difficult challenge to carry on a campus-wide conversation about STEM teacher education across space and time (Mirel, 2011).
We also talk to K-12 students about STEM teaching at every opportunity, especially when visiting our Noyce scholars in their school fieldwork placements. The high school students in these classrooms are particularly receptive to positive messaging about becoming science teachers because they get to see a high-quality preservice/cooperating teacher hard at work every day. These include high school students of color, however, our main approach to recruiting a diverse population of STEM teachers has largely been one of supporting efforts to sustain a diverse student population at our university on a broader scale.
We have systematically collected contact information and followed up with the students we meet through all these efforts, and many appreciate the outreach. Knowing that potential applicants will be making decisions by conferring with family and friends, having a project website available with more information is always a good idea. Being involved with the Noyce program has also drawn us into using social media, though our students are much better at that than we are!
One of the most important questions to pose to STEM majors is simply, “Have you ever considered becoming a science or mathematics teacher?” This question can be critical for STEM undergraduate majors, who may not have even thought about the possibility of teaching, and can serve as encouragement for those who have, but were unsure. We have worked hard to advocate for the inclusion of teaching as an option whenever STEM careers are discussed at our university. For example, when we invited Dr. Ebony Omotola McGee to speak at Montclair last year about her book Black, Brown, Bruised: How Racialized STEM Education Stifles Innovation (McGee, 2021), we had a successful turnout and series of breakout conversations that included university faculty from STEM programs, teacher educators, and K-12 teachers in partner schools.
For many prospective recruits, the uncertainty associated with the teaching commitment can be a barrier to applying for a Noyce scholarship. Providing lists of high-need schools in the area is one way to make a teaching career seem more concrete, helping potential teachers envision a possible future. Over the past few years, we have found the Teacher Cancellation Low Income (TCLI) Directory to be a particularly useful place to start, because it permits students to see themselves as teachers in the particular schools they search and identify as high-need. Current Noyce Scholars are often the best program ambassadors and are able to assuage the fears of future teachers better than we ever could. For this reason, we have invited potential applicants to Noyce meetings and events so that they have the opportunity to interact with current Noyce Scholars.
Potential applicants’ uncertainty about the prospect of repaying the scholarship if the service requirement is not met (one year for each semester of support)—an aspect of the phenomenon of “loan aversion” documented in higher education economics research (Goldrick-Rab & Kelchen, 2015)—is a greater challenge. Paradoxically, we have had a number of highly qualified and eager candidates decline a Noyce scholarship offer because they preferred the certainty of financing their education in the present over the risk of a future financial burden. Another unexpected barrier for prospective Noyce scholars is that some may have family members who are undocumented, and are wary of any program that might entangle them with the federal government.
We have reached out to current scholars and program graduates as added peer voices to help prospective candidates think through their options, and certainly this strategy may permit helpful conversations, but over time we have learned that it is better not to persuade hesitant students to apply. Our experience has been that for one reason or another, most of these students do not complete the program, or withdraw before it even begins. There are many reasons why a prospective applicant may decline to apply or accept a Noyce Scholarship offer, and one of the most challenging parts of running a Noyce program is accepting and respecting someone’s decision not to pursue a Noyce Scholarship.
During the Scholarship Program
Our Noyce Scholars are integrated into our existing teacher preparation program, but because the course sequence is identical for non-Noyce STEM teachers, we have found it important for them to have a defined identity as Noyce Scholars. We have worked to cultivate a sense of belonging to the program, and this has been accomplished primarily through deliberate advising and monthly meetings. During the pandemic, most of our contact was remote, however we were able to more readily invite graduates back to talk about their teaching experiences, share and discuss resources, and respond to our Scholars’ questions.
Our monthly meetings of Noyce Scholars are not only important channels for communication and problem-solving, but have also been some of the most rewarding aspects of leading the program. In these meetings, we typically check-in with students about how things are going, ask them to share successes and challenges, and conduct group advising conversations. Discussions about academics also helps us identify solutions to the kinds of scheduling conflicts that arise between science major and teacher education program requirements. We strongly encourage peer networking, and our students often set up group text chats among themselves using WhatsApp or GroupMe.
Like many college students, Noyce Scholars can suffer from food and housing insecurity, abuse from a partner, or challenges with mental health (Goldrick-Rab et al., 2016; The Hope Center for College, 2021). We take these critical issues seriously. If students feel comfortable talking with us about their situations, we can direct them to appropriate resources and follow up with them afterward.
An important routine we follow each semester is verifying that scholarships and stipends have been successfully issued for each Noyce Scholar. Though a nominally straightforward task, there are a number of institutional hurdles that may prevent a payment from being applied to tuition or a balance check being issued in a timely fashion.
Sometimes our Noyce scholars face academic challenges as they navigate science major requirements alongside their teacher education coursework. When a scholar’s grade point average drops below the minimum, or a particularly challenging science class pre-requisite needs to be repeated for a higher grade, this may impact the timeline for program completion.
We have found that the practice of “pausing” a scholarship for a semester to be effective for such students, but it has been equally important for us not to frame this as punitive. By pausing the scholarship, we are ensuring that the scholarship funds will be available for the final and most challenging semester of the teacher education sequence, the full-time clinical practice (i.e. student teaching). For some students, even the prospect of a paused scholarship is enough to reorient priorities and address pressing academic issues. All of our “paused” students were able to resume and successfully complete the program.
As an added component, we require each Noyce Scholar to meet their instructors during office hours at least once a semester for each math or science course they take. The students document this visit with a signed form, which we collect. (With gratitude to Dr. Don Lovett of The College of New Jersey, for sharing this idea.) When specific difficulties become apparent, either with a particular course or with passing the content exams required for licensure, we have used grant funds to hire tutors for our Noyce Scholars.
As Noyce Scholars near the end of the program, we provide help with the job search process by working with them on resume writing, interview skills, and essays for job applications. We are often able to get pairs of graduates hired at the same school or district so that they will be able to continue to support each other.
We recognize the importance of celebrating milestones, and we make sure to include all of our teacher education partners who have contributed to supporting the Noyce Scholars. Each spring we hold a celebration for graduating Scholars and invite family, friends, cooperating teachers, select faculty, as well as past Noyce graduates. The most popular aspect of these celebrations has been our own version of a “Voices From the Field” panel discussion—adopted from the national Noyce program Summit—with previous graduates who share “real talk” with the audience about the first year of teaching. Our last two virtual celebrations during the pandemic have been well-attended.
After Teacher Preparation
We have set up an induction process by which our graduates get instructional coaches and ongoing classroom support. Experienced and retired administrators serve on our induction team, and visit our Noyce graduates at regular intervals, more frequently at first. We also hold a number of induction events back on campus, many of which are run by graduates of our university’s various STEM teacher education efforts over the years, such as the Newark-Montclair Urban Teacher Residency program (Taylor & Klein, 2015).
Nonetheless, we make a concerted effort to stay in contact and check in with our graduates. This is sometimes as simple as forwarding emails about professional development opportunities or popping by their classroom if we are in the school building for other reasons. We encourage our past and present students to use and develop their personal, professional, and community networks, and we help them make these connections by introducing them to graduates from other Noyce programs, professional conferences, listservs, community organizations, and other opportunities for growth.
It is important that our Noyce Scholars stay connected and feel like they can reach out once they graduate. We are glad that our graduates text, call, and email us regularly. Sometimes they need to talk with someone they trust about big decisions like switching jobs, or solving problems, like how to respond when they are given an out-of-field teaching assignment. Other times, they want advice on approaching leadership opportunities or learning how to facilitate a professional development sessions. So far, two of our Noyce graduates have become valued cooperating teachers for subsequent Noyce Scholars, and having them as part of the teacher education team is extra valuable because of the tacit and contextual knowledge they bring to the task of mentoring pre-service STEM teachers.
At Montclair State University, we consider ourselves fortunate to have the opportunity to run a Noyce scholarship program. To the outside observer, it might appear that running a scholarship program is primarily a caretaker role, but this is mistaken. In many ways, our work with these students positions us as the first people they can come to when there is a problem, and the importance of such connections remains a critical indicator of student success (Smith, 2010). Our work with our Noyce scholars has required us to go beyond just approving payments and schedules, and attend to what students need from us in order to be successful in their journey to be a teacher.
[i] Though we focused our efforts on the preparation of science teachers in our program, in the last year we had some funds left from students who did not take all four semesters of support, and with the permission of our NSF Program Director, used these funds to support four mathematics majors in their teacher education program.
This material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) under a Noyce Track 4 Research grant (DUE #1758282), Studying the Retention of Novice Science Teachers by Learning from School District Induction and Mentoring Programs. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF.