As Silvia Torrico explains it, she and her sister Evelyn were always strong math students so they enrolled at Mount San Antonio College (Mt. SAC) intending to become engineers. However, “there was just something about it that wasn’t working for us,” she said.
They read a flyer about the college's teacher preparation program and then went to an information session where they heard about the Mt. SAC STEM Teacher Preparation Program (STEM TP2). This Advanced Technological Education (ATE) project’s strategies for helping community college students become STEM teachers include hands-on teaching opportunities, two University of California, Irvine (UC Irvine) courses, and authentic STEM research projects.
At a subsequent meeting where they learned more about STEM TP2 from Iraj B. Nejad and Charles G. Newman, principal investigator and co-principal investigator respectively, Silvia Torrico said there was a pivotal moment when the professors talked about teaching as a way to change the future.
“We always helped students in our math classes and science classes at school. We really enjoyed teaching and enriching students’ minds and showing them that math is not a scary thing. It’s actually really fun. So that’s why we both decided to become math majors and math educators,” Silvia Torrico said.
Aside from flyers and posters Nejad and Newman, who are both chemistry professors at Mt. SAC, have done in-person pitches about STEM TP2 at 60-to-70 math and science classes each spring. They have found that intentionally casting a wide net with their five-to-10-minute talks has been an effective recruiting strategy. From the many applications they have received they have chosen students whose essay responses on the project’s application indicated a “serious interest in teaching.”
Immediately after being selected for the 15-month STEM TP2 program the students begin to learn to be teachers. As Newman explains, “We have 20 to 25 hours of training before they [the students] even go and work on the Summer Science Camp with the middle school kids because our cohort students are the presenters for many of the aspects. They will do things like math activities, biology activities, and they are areas that are specific to their interest. So they are continuing to get more and more student connections.” During the pre-camp training the students begin interacting with youngsters and their parents by helping Mt. SAC faculty with Family Science Nights at local elementary schools.
The Summer Science Camp and the other components of STEM TP2 are featured in an ATETV video.
All 51 students in the four STEM TP2 cohorts have completed the Summer Science Camp experience. Some have decided at that point that teaching is not a good fit for them, which Nejad considers a valuable thing for students to learn early in their career preparation.
So far 25 of the 34 students in the first three cohorts have transferred to baccalaureate programs.
Other data from the project include the following:
- 36 of the 51 STEM TP2 students have completed the UC Irvine Introduction to Math and Science Teaching course, which is taught at the Irvine campus (30 miles from Mt. SAC) during the fall semester immediately after the camp. This course requires each student to do 25 hours of field work at a local elementary school. The Mt. SAC students grade papers, work one-on-one with students, or with small groups of students. Their capstone experience is presenting a 45-minute math lesson to a fourth or fifth grade class.
- 18 of the 34 students in the first three cohorts have completed the UC Irvine Introduction to Research Methods course, which is taught at both UC Irvine and at Mt. SAC in the spring semester. Students drive to UC Irvine for the first two meetings of the seminar class that include tours of the university’s research facilities. During the rest of the semester the UC Irvine professor teaches the course at Mt. SAC.
- 13 of the 34 students did summer research projects with mentoring from professors at UC Irvine, and in one case at the California Polytechnic State University.
- 6 of the 34 students have completed four-year degrees and are in teacher licensure programs.
Nejad describes the UC Irvine courses and the research opportunities as a “true, true collaboration” between Mt. SAC, UC Irvine, CalTeach, a University of California program that combines a four-year degree with teaching credential courses. “Without their resources, there’s no way we could have done it this way,” Nejad said.
The collaborative connections have really paid off for the Mt. SAC students who have been able to choose from among dozens of research projects in fields ranging from marine science and public health to engineering and physiology. ATE grant funds provide stipends for the students and the faculty who mentor them during their eight-week summer research projects.
Here’s a sampling of what students have written in evaluations about their research experiences:
“As a future teacher, I can take the information I learned through this research experience and use it in the classroom. I learned better organizational skills, better communication skills, and how to cohesively summarize important data. Lastly, I learned how important teamwork is.”
“This experience has given me the opportunity to be an educator that does not just teach what they have read in a textbook. This has given me the experience of working in a lab and working in the field. The hands-on experience, the stories and the real-world relate-ability is what I will be able to share with students.”
“Before entering this lab, I had no experience with coding or writing algorithms at all. Through this project I have become proficient in coding, which is a skill I can take into my further education. Also working with a team taught me a lot of skills I had never really worked on before.”
“I came in the lab with excitement and fear of not being able to compare my skills to the graduate students … working side-by-side with them, they helped me realize that everyone starts somewhere and as long as you have the right support system and persistence in learning, anything is possible.”
One student’s motivation to teach
The 17 students in the fourth cohort are still at Mt. SAC. Silvia and Evelyn Torrico are among them. In October 2018 the Torrico sisters attended the Advanced Technological Education Principal Investigators’ Conference in Washington, D.C.
As Silvia Torrico talked about her teacher preparation experiences during the student showcase it was clear that her enthusiasm for teaching had not diminished since she first heard Nejad and Newman talk at STEM TP2 information session.
“I want to change the future. I want to improve America. I want to help our society. And I think through teaching, that’s an amazing way to do that. That’s what motivates me,” she said.