New STEM Teacher Preparation Opportunities Are on the Horizon in West Texas: Introducing UTeach Permian Basin

From left the following individuals smile for a photo: David Sparks, Co-Director, Math-Science Teacher Education, College of Education; Jesús Dimas, Chemistry Major, future UTeach Permian Basin student; Milka Montes, Co-Director, Chemistry Department Chair, College of Arts and Sciences; Larry Daniel, Dean, College of Education
From left: David Sparks, Co-Director, Math-Science Teacher Education, College of Education; Jesús Dimas, Chemistry Major, future UTeach Permian Basin student; Milka Montes, Co-Director, Chemistry Department Chair, College of Arts and Sciences; Larry Daniel, Dean, College of Education

by Amy Winters

Dr. Milka Montes, Chemistry Department Chair at The University of Texas Permian Basin, is excited. “Being a UTeach teacher comes with a certain prestige,” she says with a big smile.

She’s talking about the new partnership between UT Permian Basin and UTeach at The University of Texas at Austin. The new program, called UTeach Permian Basin, will recruit and prepare a qualified STEM educator workforce that will ultimately strengthen STEM education overall in the area.

Many industries — including oil and gas, cornerstones of the Permian Basin economy — rely on a well-trained STEM workforce. “Here in Permian Basin, we have a lot of potential for people to go into STEM fields — engineers, chemists, geologists,” Dr. Montes says.

Under the innovative UTeach model, students who major in STEM subjects are well-prepared to teach those subjects in secondary schools. The result is a highly effective STEM teacher workforce. Across the nation, 49 universities in 23 states and the District of Columbia have UTeach programs, and those programs have produced more than 6,500 graduates. Teachers from UTeach programs stay in teaching longer, improve student performance in math and science, and influence students to enter STEM fields.

One of UTeach’s innovations is to engage educators and scientists together in the mission to prepare the best STEM teachers. UTeach programs are led by two co-directors — one from a university’s college of education and one from the college of science — working together to ensure that students know their chosen STEM subjects intimately and are deeply engaged in the best education pedagogy and practices. Students earn their bachelor’s degree in a STEM field in four years while simultaneously earning a secondary teaching certification.

Dr. Montes, UTeach Permian Basin’s co-director from the College of Arts and Sciences, looks forward to working with her colleague from the College of Education, Dr. David Sparks. Dr. Sparks knows the UTeach model well, having been faculty in the UTeach Arlington program for several years. He is thoughtful about the experience and enthusiasm he brings to the new program: “I could have lived my whole life at UTeach Arlington and loved it. But all the experiences I had there prepared me for this job, even if I wasn’t preparing on purpose.”

The co-directors and the university are not the only ones who believe deeply in UTeach’s mission. The Permian Strategic Partnership — dedicated to working with local leaders to improve the quality of life of Permian Basin residents — has invested $1.9 million in the project. President and CEO of PSP Tracee Bentley says,

“Proficiency in STEM subjects is crucial to advancing economic opportunity and success in the workforce, particularly in our industry, and we recognize we are facing a shortage of teachers to nurture a passion for these subjects in our students. The UTeach program strengthens the regional pipeline of STEM teachers while providing a sustainable program model for other institutions of higher learning across the region.”

“The College of Education deeply appreciates the vision that the PSP and UTeach have for preparing STEM teachers in the Permian Basin,” says Dr. Larry Daniel, UT Permian Basin’s College of Education Dean. “This grant will be a game-changer in UTPB’s ability to prepare the next generation of math and science teachers who are ready for the realities of today’s classroom and focused on helping our local students be fully ready to enter college and the STEM-related job market.”

Though UTeach Permian Basin won’t begin enrolling students until the fall of 2022, the entire community seems as enthusiastic as everyone already involved with the program. Dr. Montes immediately heard from what felt like everyone: “The community is so excited! Students have contacted us since the announcement yesterday. This morning when I went to yoga, two people asked about it. Teachers and community leaders are already asking about it.”

Co-directors Dr. Montes and Dr. Sparks have already done a lot of planning for the UTeach Permian Basin program, and they know they have a lot more to do in the next year to be ready for their first students. They also know the investment is worth it. “I truly believe in UTeach. I believe in the model, believe that it works. I want to be a part of it,” Dr. Sparks says. “I want to see this community thrive,” Dr. Montes emphasizes. “Our students think they have to choose between being a teacher or a scientist. We will show them that they can be both.”