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One teacher at a time – overcoming a crisis in STEM

Year 8 teacher Tina McKenzie has taught 12-year olds how to extract DNA from a tomato and how craft can demonstrate the beauty of mathematics.

She is one of dozens of primary and intermediate teachers to receive specialist training at the University of Auckland in teaching STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), thanks to a scholarship scheme funded by the Woolf Fisher Trust.

For the past four years the Trust has provided scholarships to new teaching graduates and early career teachers at the Faculty of Education and Social Work (EDSW) with the aim of addressing a critical shortage of STEM teachers in New Zealand.

The initiative is funded to produce 100 specialist STEM teachers at primary and intermediate level by 2022. So far 24 teachers have graduated from the honours programme and nine are about to complete.

Project coordinator Megan Clune says they hope this boost in teacher capacity will have a flow-on effect on both New Zealand’s chronic STEM skills shortage, and the drop-off in student interest in these subjects in the late primary and early adolescent years.

Only 20 percent of Year 8 students perform at the expected curriculum level for Science in New Zealand, and in mathematics in Year 8, it’s 41 percent.

“Teachers with sound knowledge in science and mathematics, and high confidence and self-efficacy in these subjects, can make a real difference to student outcomes,” says Ms Clune, who is a Professional Teaching Fellow in EDSW.

“Internationally, the critical role of STEM subjects for innovation and economic development has been widely recognised. Success in science and mathematics provides better options for study and employment and equips students to better understand the world they live in.”

Ms Clune is funded by the Trust to mentor the scholarship recipients during the programme while they teach in classrooms, increasing effectiveness and motivation.

For Tina McKenzie, who is in her second year of teaching at Somerville Intermediate School in Howick, the scholarship has given her an enthusiasm for and enhanced competence in what can be difficult subjects to teach.

“Maths and science used to give me anxiety and I needed to turn that around so that my fears didn’t end up rubbing off on my students,” she says.

“Student achievement in both subjects really depends on quality instruction and teacher confidence. With a strong mathematics and science education, students are better able to spark imagination, think logically, problem solve and develop higher-order thinking.

“Learning to love maths and science is important for so many reasons as our world is rapidly evolving and as we become more reliant on technology,” she adds.

The funding from the Woolf Fisher Trust was received as part of the University’s For All Our Futures campaign, which aimed to raise $300 million from donors to advance important research which addresses the big challenges that our critical to our future – including educational achievement.

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