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Future STEM teachers receive tuition stipends for graduate program

Submitted by the University of Wisconsin-River Falls

Ten graduate students of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls have received financial stipends from the National Science Foundation to cover costs of their studies and start new careers teaching science or math.

The UWRF STEMteach graduate program prepares individuals with an undergraduate major in science, technology, engineering or mathematics to become licensed middle or high school science, computer science or mathematics teachers after one year of intensive study.

The NSF Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship was established to both encourage highly qualified candidates to enter teaching careers and provide local school districts with much needed science and math teachers, according to Earl Blodgett, UWRF physics professor and project director.

"Our program received the first installment of the nearly $1.5 million award in May 2017, just in time to support the newest cohort of STEMteach candidates," Blodgett said.

Allie Blomquist of Hudson had intended to teach math after college, but became a professional golfer and golf instructor instead. During her time giving golf clinics to local youth groups in Boston, she rediscovered a passion for teaching.

"I loved to figure out how to reach each unique student and see the moment of understanding and positive change happen," she said. From this experience, she found a strong desire to "make a difference in the lives of kids, teaching them the power of math and physics."

In return for the stipend, the candidates commit to teaching for at least two years in a high-needs school district.

As a graduate of one such school, Brett Shand of Columbia Heights, Minn., understands the importance of having "qualified, passionate teachers" at these schools. A first-generation college student, Shand was an environmental geologist before enrolling in the UWRF graduate program.

"I believe that I can have a positive impact on these underprivileged students and provide them with a quality education to prepare them for their futures," he added. "I am well-suited to recognize the potential in otherwise overlooked students and challenge them to rise to their full potential."

Addie Ek-Pangerl of White Bear Lake, Minn., was a chemistry tutor when she studied biology and chemistry at UW-River Falls. She was studying to be a chiropractor when she decided to switch career paths and apply to the STEMteach program.

"The looks on those students' faces when a particularly difficult concept finally sunk in were the most rewarding moments of my tutoring career," she said.

"Because of the rigorous pace of courses and the early opportunities for field experiences in classrooms, STEMteach students often give up their day job to complete this one-year program," said Blodgett. "This forgivable loan will significantly reduce the financial burden associated with this decision."

This was a benefit expressed by many of the stipend recipients, including Dave Ballard of St. Paul. He said that the stipend would relieve his family of some financial uncertainty and allow him to focus on teacher preparation.

"With two young children at home, we are currently unable to add to our income through additional work," Ballard said. Ballard was working as a computer programmer and data scientist for two large data companies before returning to school to enter the STEMteach program.

"It's not only my own interest in physics and computer science that make me excited to teach," said Ballard. "It is also the prospect of helping students see the wonder of the world we live in and recognize their own capacity to understand, describe and even modify their own world."

Graduate students begin intensive field experiences in the first course and continue throughout the program, culminating with apprentice teaching. Classes are on the UW-River Falls campus with teaching experiences arranged in area school districts, some of which are in economically disadvantaged areas.

New cohorts of students begin each year in the summer. For information on admissions to the graduate program, visit go.uwrf.edu/stemteach. The STEMteach Noyce Forgivable Loan will be available for next year's candidates.

The 2017 recipients of the STEMteach Noyce Forgivable Loan are Dave Ballard of St. Paul, Adam Beston of Menomonie, Allison Blomquist of Hudson, Mark Bjork of Buffalo, Minn., Andrea Ek-Pangerl of White Bear Lake, Minn., Anna Huberty of Hastings, Minn., Amanda Norby-White of Shiocton, Joseph Norby-White of New London, Brianna Phernetton of Webster, and Brett Shand of Columbia Heights, Minn.