UI aims to raise STEM teacher retention through conference connections

School districts across the Hawkeye state struggle with retention rates for STEM teachers (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), a trend educators across Iowa are aiming to change.

The University of Iowa's College of Education partnered with the Southeast Iowa Region Governor's STEM Advisory Council to offer a networking opportunity between aspiring teachers and current educators throughout the state.

The 2017 STEM Pre-Service Teacher Conference was held at the Kirkwood Regional Center at the University of Iowa, starting Friday, Mar. 3 and continuing through Saturday afternoon.

With educational changes across the curriculum, many STEM teachers leave the profession, citing lack of support or an interest in pursuing an advanced degree.

Conference coordinators said they aimed to provide support and educate future teachers about their options through connections with those currently in the profession.

"Teaching is becoming a more and more challenging environment," said Chuck Tonelli, a STEAM teacher at Metro High School. "No matter who the teacher is and how awesome they are now, their first and second year was a challenge... To be able to support those first and second-year teachers better than we're doing right now is why it's so great to have events like this."

Tonelli, along with colleagues Matthew Secl and Shannon Ellis, presented information about strategies to a group of graduate students on Saturday.

"Our messages to [the students] are, 'Be creative and innovative,'" said Tonelli, pleading with future educators to avoid following a set of standards strictly because others are. "That's not what education is supposed to be."

Secl, an industrial technology teacher at Metro High School, the largest alternative school in Iowa, echoed Tonelli's sentiments.

"Learning doesn't happen between the pages of a book," said Secl. "It's hands-on, it's dirty, and it's confusing... I hope that they understand that there's a lot of support. That's a driving force that's going to make the next generation of teachers that much better."

Ellis, a facilitator at Metro, said the takeaways from the two-day conference are invaluable.

"These students who are here today have an opportunity to talk to veteran teachers," said Ellis. "School is changing and we need to change with it. These future teachers are asking questions and getting answers they wouldn't get otherwise."

Hannah Kroska, a graduate student at the University of Iowa focusing on secondary sciences, said the resources she has gained from the event will help her as she begins her teaching career.

"Having partnerships with [current teachers] not only improves student learning, but improves you as a teacher, makes you feel more confident in your craft and I think it makes you better at your job and your job more enjoyable," said Kroska.

More than 80 STEM pre-service teachers from 21 colleges throughout Iowa attended the conference.

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