Learning to Teach

Kristen Bates was looking for an approachable way to teach a lesson on volume and pressure to her chemistry students at Leeds High School in Birmingham.

Many of her students played sports, which gave her an idea. "I decided to use a sports scandal scenario to reinforce the concept,” she says.

Bates gave her students a football, a basketball, a volleyball, a dodgeball, a rugby ball, and a soccer ball. She instructed them to research the regulation volume and pressure of each ball and then calculate the actual measurements of the balls in front of them. Using that information, the students had to decide which balls had been “tampered with."

“It was a fun lesson for them,” she says.

Bates, a Birmingham native, is still a student herself. After she graduates in April from UAB with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, she plans to teach high-school chemistry full-time.

She’s among the first cohort of students to complete four years of UABTeach, a program designed to increase the number of highly qualified middle- and high-school teachers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

UABTeach was developed in 2014 by faculty members John Mayer, Ph.D., professor and associate chair of the Department of Mathematics, and Lee Meadows, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, as a response to the low numbers of college STEM graduates seeking teaching certifications, particularly at UAB.

The program is modeled after UTeach, which began at the University of Texas in Austin in 1997.

“Locally and nationally, there is a pressing need for STEM educators at the middle- and high-school levels,” Mayer says. “To become certified to teach grades 6-12 has required a double major in education and the STEM area, and that is a time and money obstacle that many students think more than twice about.”

In four years, UABTeach students receive a bachelor’s degree in their STEM field, a teaching certification, and a strong education in inquiry-based, hands-on teaching and learning—something Bates put to use during her volume and pressure lesson.

Discovering the Classroom

Like many UABTeach students, Bates didn’t start college with the plan to teach. She was pre-med as a freshman and learned about the program at orientation.

“Right away I fell in love with the kids, with how inquisitive they were, and I enjoyed explaining things to them,” she said. “It was something I could see myself doing.”

By her sophomore year, she was positive she wanted to teach and attributes that certainty to get into the classroom at the beginning.

That’s a big strength of the program, says Adam Roderick, MEd, academic coach and program enhancement specialist for UABTeach. The first semester is dedicated to letting students figure out if teaching is right for them. “Those exploratory courses give students the chance to get a taste, to get exposure,” he says. “We know we’ll attract some students who had never thought about teaching before, and to see that light bulb go off for that student—that could be life-changing for them, it could completely change their career trajectory.”

That was the case for Angelin Ponraj, a biomedical science major with a chemistry minor. Like Bates, Ponraj had plans to go to medical school, but stepping into the classroom showed Ponraj that she could share her science knowledge in a different way.

“The program uncovered this passion I have for pushing students to reach their full potential by equipping them with knowledge,” she says. “I learned quickly that there are groups of students that the world has forgotten and has left behind. My passion is to find those students, make sure they understand their value, worth, and capabilities, and push them to be incredible world-changers.”

A New Workforce

John Cross, a math major at UAB, had ambitions early on to serve the Birmingham school system. He graduated at the top of his class from Birmingham’s Woodlawn High School and knew then that he wanted to influence education in the state. "My purpose going into college was to learn as much as I could to bring back to the inner-city school systems and local communities,” he says.

The shortage of STEM teachers in middle and high schools is nationwide, and Alabama is no exception, says Meadows. “There are school districts in Alabama that have no certified math teachers or very few certified science teachers,” Meadows says. “That means a student could go from grade 6 to 12 without a qualified math teacher, and when that happens, I don’t think there’s any way those students are going to be able to go to college and be successful in a STEM degree.”

That means UABTeach has the potential to make a difference in Alabama’s STEM workforce, Meadows says. “UAB’s investment and the investment of our partners is going to have paid off richly with a STEM workforce, which will strengthen Alabama’s overall economy,” he says.

At the brink of graduation, Cross, who will teach math at Irondale Middle School in Birmingham, says he is excited to use the skills acquired through UABTeach to make a difference in his students’ lives.

“While teaching mathematics at schools across Jefferson County, I have come across tons of effective ways of doing math problems that are not exactly new, but just were never embraced and used to teach the students,” he says. “I will be that difference.”

Learn more about supporting UABTeach: Becky Gordon, associate vice president for development: (205) 975-6149, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.