Rescuing math and science

September 25, 2006

Two promising Baltimore-area partnerships between philanthropy and academia could help ease the perpetual shortage of math and science teachers in Maryland. The approaches that are being tried at two area schools, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Towson University, are different but complementary. If successful, they could be expanded and replicated to address a critical need.

Schools across the nation are seeking qualified math and science teachers, mostly from the ranks of those who might have majored in some combination of math, science and education as well as those who have relevant professional experience. In Maryland, the State Department of Education has encouraged people with math and science backgrounds who are looking for a change from the military and other professions to train for new careers in classrooms. The state's effort is worthy, but the gap is challenging. In the 2005-2006 school year, the pool of homegrown math teachers was 513, when 753 were needed; in science, the pool was 430, when 562 were needed.

That's why the new partnerships are so welcome. UMBC, which has carved out a niche in the so-called STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and math, has received most of a $5 million gift from George and Betsy Sherman, longtime Baltimore-area philanthropists. The money will be used to endow scholarships for math and science majors who promise to teach in schools around the state with a high proportion of low-income students. The gift comes as UMBC celebrates its 40th anniversary and aims to nurture the next generation of "geeks" from areas of the state that have been historically underrepresented.

Towson University, which has also grown in size and influence, is using a $1 million gift from Willard Hackerman, head of the Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., to create a math and science academy. In 2007, the academy is expected to invite small groups of Baltimore-area high school students, particularly young minorities and women, who have an aptitude for math and science to become part of a "STEM circle," meeting local professionals to see how they have put their expertise to practical use; mentor and encourage promising young scientists and mathematicians to go to college and to become teachers; and offer teachers the opportunity to enhance their knowledge and mentor less-experienced colleagues.

These approaches may not totally solve the problem, but they suggest a hopeful rescue effort.

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