From STEM Majors at LSUA to STEM Teachers in Central Louisiana High Schools
In a historic win for LSU of Alexandria (LSUA) and career prospects in central Louisiana,
a collaborative faculty team has received $1.2 million from the National Science Foundation
(NSF). The newly funded five-year project will help 21 LSUA juniors and seniors become
highly effective biology, chemistry, and math teachers in high-need high schools in
the surrounding parishes after they graduate.
LSUA graduate Helena Ellis is already teaching biology, chemistry, and math at Marksville High School in Avoyelles Parish. She has no doubts about her own career choice and is excited about the potential impact of the new program, the LSUA Noyce Scholarship. She just wishes she could have been part of it herself.
March 31, 2021 Update: LSUA has received a second NSF grant to help build the STEM workforce, this time through the S-STEM program—read more.
Although the first cohort of students won’t be entering the new NSF-funded program
until this fall, many LSUA graduates have already picked similar career paths in the
past, choosing to teach in nearby central Louisiana parishes. This helped the faculty
team figure out what they would need to do to help more science, technology, engineering,
and math (STEM) college students become teachers and put together a program they already
know is going to work.
“I’ve learned from my conversations with current and former students how great the need is for a stronger foundation in STEM before students get to college, and also, how knowing the subject matter is only one part of a much bigger picture,” said Gerard Dumancas, who serves as the principal investigator of the project and is an associate professor of chemistry at LSUA. “We want our students to love teaching science, develop the skills and grit needed to stay in the profession, and be happy—even if they teach in schools with limited resources.”
While most (51%) Louisiana students express a sincere interest in STEM majors and careers, only 10% meet the knowledge requirements in math and science.
Four cohorts of five or six students will receive a scholarship of $17,142 per year for up to two years and participate in collaborative mentor-scholar projects and monthly workshops to improve their communication and interpersonal skills, and much more. LSUA will also help them obtain teacher certifications as well as provide professional development and support once they start teaching, which they commit to doing in high-need Louisiana high schools for twice the amount of time they received support at LSUA through the scholarship. For this reason, the university has partnered with seven nearby school districts, including Allen, Avoyelles, Concordia, Evangeline, Grant, LaSalle, and Rapides, as well as Central Louisiana Technical Community College, where qualified and effective STEM teachers are in high demand.
While most (51%) Louisiana students express a sincere interest in STEM majors and careers, only 10% meet the knowledge requirements in math and science. And while the interest in STEM seems to be going up (LSUA STEM programs recently experienced a 30% enrollment increase), ACT test scores in math and science hit an all-time low in 2019 (since the state started requiring all students to take the exam in 2013). One in every five classrooms in the state is led by a teacher who is either uncertified or teaching outside their field of expertise. Also, the number of people who become math and science teachers decreased almost 20% over the past decade, while 40% quit in their first five years.
“Since STEM education in middle and high school is the key driver of students’ ability to major in science in college and choose STEM careers, we couldn’t look at these numbers and not see a big problem,” Dumancas said. “So, we had to ask ourselves, how can LSUA help?”
Dumancas, the chemist, got to work on a solution. It became “Recruiting, Preparing, and Retaining STEM Educators to Serve in High-Need Schools in Central Louisiana,” the official name of the project freshly funded through the NSF Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program.
“Mentorship and community support are essential to retaining teachers,” said Dumancas, named 2019 Faculty Mentor of the Year at LSUA. “And we already have a strong connection with many elementary and secondary schools in central Louisiana because our graduates are teaching there. Our students usually come from Louisiana and go to work in central Louisiana.”
Helena Ellis, who lives in Pineville, definitely fits this description. She graduated
with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry with a minor in biology from LSUA in 2020. Last
fall, she started teaching at Marksville High School in Avoyelles Parish—chemistry,
chemistry honors, biology II, algebra II, and environmental science.
“All of which I’m more than qualified to teach,” she said. “Much thanks to Dr. Dumancas who did a great job combining teaching with practice, where we’d switch between lecture and experiments, which was a great way to learn and something I’ve picked up with my own students.”
Ellis has seen a change in her classroom in just a few months.
“I hold my students to a high standard,” she said. “Some are actively reviewing notes before class now, and it doesn’t take all that much to encourage them.”
“Everyone said it would be horrible,” Ellis recalled. “I said, ‘Challenge accepted.’”
While Ellis is “teaching her passion” in her own areas of expertise, she often talks with colleagues who are not as comfortable in their professional roles. Learning about the newly funded program at LSUA, she wishes she could have been part of it since most science majors in college are taught science—not how to learn (or teach) science. For subject matter experts, it’s especially important to remember how it feels to not know much about a subject in order to be an effective teacher, Ellis argues. Meanwhile, subject matter expertise is essential.
“STEM teachers are few and far between and not many of us are teaching our major like I am,” she said. “I would probably cry if I couldn’t teach chemistry—biology is my best buddy, but chemistry is my husband, if you know what I mean.”
Ellis was less picky about where to teach. At least at first. Once she, a science graduate, was told multiple times how she shouldn’t pick one of the lowest paid professions in one of the lowest per-capita income parishes in Louisiana, her mind was made up. She’d be going to Marksville.
“Everyone said it would be horrible,” Ellis recalled. “I said, ‘Challenge accepted.’”
In February, she beamed and posed for a photo in the school’s lobby holding an engraved plaque as Teacher of the Month. Meanwhile, other opportunities have come up. There have been phone calls; would she perhaps be interested in switching to another school with more resources? So far, no. Ellis prefers to work where she feels she can have the most impact.
“I’m not the teacher I want to be yet, but I’m learning,” she said. “I leave work feeling like I played all day because I got to do what I love in a community that feels like family and a school that feels like home. This is me, so I’m staying where I’m at.”
Ellis’s boss is Liza Jacobs, principal as well as a ’91 graduate of Marksville High School. She is very grateful to have Ellis on staff, but also needs more certified STEM teachers.
“It’s extremely difficult to find middle and high school STEM teachers with a certification,” Jacobs said. “I compare my school to other schools in the district, and we’re all in the same boat. Right now, I’m blessed to have a great team of middle school science and math teachers and a great high school science teacher in Helena, but I need more. Two of my high school math teachers are about to retire, and options for replacing them are limited.”
“I love the idea of LSUA giving STEM graduates the experience of teaching in high-need schools such as ours through their new program. Because once they come to us, they might realize they like it, and stay.”—Liza Jacobs, principal at Marksville High School
Jacobs gets lots of applicants with a background in history, English, or social studies.
What she doesn’t get are applicants with in-depth understanding of science and math
and, on top of that, ability to teach.
“STEM graduates typically go for fields where they’re paid more,” Jacobs explained. “They can easily go and make double what a teacher makes, and that is tough to compete with. But I love the idea of LSUA giving STEM graduates the experience of teaching in high-need schools such as ours through their new program. Because once they come to us, they might realize they like it, and stay. I would love to see a new surge of highly educated people commit to educating our youth—especially in STEM subjects.”
As principal of a 7-12 school, Jacobs calls herself a big believer in middle school feeding high school, and high school feeding college “and all of the professions.”
“It’s like good silt coming down the Mississippi River and fertilizing the banks,” Jacobs added. “Our mission is to see our students all the way through, and we need fully certified STEM teachers to make that a reality.”
Another Louisiana student—aside from Ellis—who experienced the “joy” of teaching science
conveyed by Dumancas and his team at LSUA is Terry Rodney. He spent his last year
of high school in Bunkie, Louisiana taking only college courses through a dual enrollment
program with LSUA. There, he met Dumancas, who encouraged him to participate in chemistry
“When I told him I was still in high school, he was shocked,” Rodney remembered. “We had to get special permission to collaborate, and I ended up doing quantitative analysis of terpenes, aromatic compounds found in plants. I jumped on the opportunity, because I’d honestly been learning less in high school than I did in elementary and middle school—we didn’t even have books, so I loved those dual enrollment classes.”
Rodney is now a biochemistry major at LSU in Baton Rouge, working as a research assistant in John Pojman’s lab, where he’s helped to develop a novel polymer to coat sweet potatoes so they can be planted with tractors instead of by hand.
“The trick was to come up with a cheap polymer that could protect the sweet potatoes, so they don’t get bruised or crushed, but would also dissolve and allow the roots to sprout—that’s a collaboration we did with the LSU AgCenter, and they were surprisingly happy with what we came up with.”
Rodney originally got interested in science because of his grandfather, who had a master’s degree in herpetology, the study of amphibians and reptiles.
“He opened my eyes to how amazing science was, but without Dr. Dumancas, I would never have had a chance to begin doing research, not to this day,” Rodney said. “And the best part was that he gave me a very realistic idea of what being a researcher would be like, which is why I’m now looking at doing a Ph.D. in biochemistry.”
Rodney is also working on three research papers to be published in the Encyclopedia of Toxicology under Dumancas’s continued mentorship. About the need for more qualified high school teachers in STEM, he said:
“I believe this is the first NSF grant LSUA has ever received, and now I want to help other LSUA faculty members apply for competitive grants.”—Gerard Dumancas
“I’m very proud of my former students as well as my team at LSUA,” Dumancas later commented. “Susan Myrick, associate professor of education, and Nathan Ponder and Guoyi Ke, both in math. I believe this is the first NSF grant LSUA has ever received, and now I want to help other LSUA faculty members apply for competitive grants.”
Dumancas credits his team’s success in part to his own participation in the LSU I-Corps program, managed through the Office of Innovation & Technology, led by Andrew Maas. That program is also funded by NSF and educates faculty, students, and the larger community on entrepreneurial principles to help commercialize their research and ideas. Dumancas has developed new technologies as well as a smartphone app to help authenticate honey—its purity and origin—to prevent food fraud (honey ranks third among adulterated commodities world-wide).
“We’re so happy to see this win for Dr. Dumancas, LSUA, and central Louisiana,” Maas said. “Through his team’s efforts and involvements with our NSF I-Corps program, they’re positioned to impact the central Louisiana region in a significant way.”
Students interested in applying for the LSUA Noyce Scholarship Program can contact Dumancas via email.
LSUA Receives $1.2 Million NSF Grant (LSU of Alexandria)
LSUA Receives Second NSF Grant (LSU of Alexandria)
“Honey, Are You From Around Here?” (LSU Office of Research & Economic Development)
LSU Office of Research & Economic Development