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UMBC unveils new Bachelor of Science in Middle Grades STEM

UMBC has become the first institution of higher education in Maryland to offer a middle grades STEM degree, offering education students the opportunity to get a leg-up in job searches and improve public education in the state. The degree was proposed to the Board of Regents on Jan. 15 and is currently poised to move forward.

The proposed degree is a result of collaboration from UMBC’s biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics departments and the College of Engineering and Information Technology. The education coursework is modeled after existing UMBC teacher certification programs but customized to focus on knowledge specific to middle grades and STEM subjects. UMBC already offers undergraduates certifications for early childhood, elementary and secondary teaching. Interestingly, it also already offers bachelors degrees in biology education, chemistry education and physics education. The proposal to the Board of Regents claims that this new degree will differ from the current programs in that graduates of this program will hopefully have more knowledge about all topics covered under STEM, not just one specific area like biology or chemistry.

Michael Kalb is one UMBC student hoping to become a middle grades math teacher. As a junior, he chose to major in mathematics because UMBC offers no official education degree. He noted, “the math degree requires math that goes way beyond what I would need to teach middle school math, but getting this degree allows me more options later in life than just teaching.” However, he also comments that if the degree was available to him when he started his undergraduate degree, “I would have considered it because I only need the basic fundamentals of these subjects to teach middle school.”

The proposal for the B.S. comes after the declaration of a critical shortage of middle grades (4-9) teachers in mathematics and science declared by the Maryland State Department of Education. The University System of Maryland also called for the tripling of the number of STEM teachers graduating from USM institutions by the year 2020 in their 10-year strategic plan entitled “Powering Maryland Forward.” Additionally, new education standards in Maryland now require middle grades math and science teachers to have an “in-depth understanding of all four STEM content areas,” although it is not clear how this understanding will be measured. These three factors heavily influenced the development of the new program.

One of the goals of the USM plan is to “expand baccalaureate degree production by an additional 10,000 degrees, with particular focus on the high-need areas of [STEM].” The proposal to the Board of Regents states that this new degree will add to the number of baccalaureate degrees in STEM education subjects offered at UMBC, contributing to the goal of the USM system. Another goal of the 10-year plan is to “triple the number of STEM teachers graduating from USM institutions.”

Mikaila Donaldson, a sophomore history major with a secondary education certificate in social studies, has mixed reactions to the motivations behind the creation of the program. Her concern revolves around the USM’s goal to increase the number of STEM teachers graduating from USM institutions. “It feels like they are focusing on quantity of teachers over quality,” she commented. Since the university already offers degrees in biology education, chemistry education and physics education, this new degree seems like it glosses over these complex topics without delving into the subjects too deeply.

Donaldson also questioned whether the certification for STEM education will be valid in all 50 states since it seems to be tailored to a specific Maryland goal. Her own degree in social studies education is valid in most, but not all, 50 states. This question of validity and demand is important for those considering teaching middle grades outside of Maryland.

Nevertheless, as the first university to create such a program, UMBC graduates with this degree will hopefully be in high demand by middle schools in the state. The University of Maryland, College Park currently offers a Middle School Math and Science degree, and Towson University offers a Middle School degree that includes instruction in mathematics and science, but neither provide the specificity in addressing USM goals that the proposed degree does. The proposal for the degree claims that, upon completion, students will be more prepared for specific certification in middle grades science and math, “making them uniquely marketable in the state and region.”

While it will take time to see how graduates of the program benefit from it, the fact that UMBC is offering more options for education students reinforces its commitment to serving others and emphasizes the importance of educating young students. President Hrabowski summed up the importance of this new degree in his letter to the Chancellor of USM with the statement, “increasing the number of highly qualified STEM educators is an imperative if we are to prepare future generations of our young people … to compete in the economies of Maryland and our region.”

Photo: UMBC’s newly-proposed B.S. in Middle Grades STEM program was conceptualized after the Maryland State Department of Education declared a shortage of these teachers. Photo by Jennifer Blake courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.