This January, NASA astronauts aboard the International Space Station took a quick break from their research to join the third annual State of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (SoSTEM) event and share their perspectives on the value of a STEM education. The event made it official: in 2015 STEM education is taking center stage—all across the universe! Western Governors University, who in 2013 produced the largest number of science and math teachers in the nation, has joined the cause by partnering with 100Kin10, a network dedicated to training 100,000 STEM educators by 2021. We spoke with Philip Schmidt, vice president and dean of Western Governors University’s Teachers College, about the importance of STEM education, WGU’s Master’s programs, and more.

Q | WGU produces the largest number of science and math teachers in the nation. Why is STEM education so important?

A | Research continues to show that educators are in high demand. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts job growth of 12 percent for teachers in elementary and middle schools and 6 percent for high school teachers between now and 2022, with demand for math and science disciplines higher than average.

Technology and innovation will be drivers of the world economy for the foreseeable future, so training educators who will teach the next generation of science, math, and technology innovators is crucial to positioning the U.S. as a leader in that economy.

Q | Tell us about your work as part of 100Kin10, a network dedicated to training 100,000 STEM educators by 2021. How do you hope to help achieve this goal?

A | The WGU Teachers College was nominated by the Broad Institute for membership in the prestigious 100Kin10 network. We are committed to graduating 4,000 STEM teachers from our Teachers College within the next four years, with a large majority of these graduates being members of underserved populations. We plan to accomplish this tremendous goal by growing our programs nationally and through our partnerships with other 100Kin10 members, such as the American Museum of Natural History.

Q | The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) recently ranked WGU’s secondary math education program first in the nation. What makes WGU’s program stand out?

A | Our secondary mathematics program combines a strong mathematics major with strong pedagogical and clinical components. This program meets both the clinical requirements and the mathematics content requirements of all 50 states.

As a competency-based institution, students must pass every student teaching observation and pass every component of every observation. With WGU’s ample emphasis on classroom management, lesson planning, and the spirit that every student can learn mathematics, it’s no wonder that the NCTQ—with its focus on teacher quality—would choose to recognize our education programs.

Q | What is competency-based learning and why is it important?

A | Competency-based learning—which WGU pioneered more than 15 years ago—allows students to earn their degrees by demonstrating what they know and can do rather than spending time in class to accumulate credit hours. Competency-based learning is ideal for adult students because it allows them to take advantage of the knowledge and skills they’ve acquired from work and previous college experience—in a competency-based program, students advance as soon as they can demonstrate mastery of course subject matter, so students can advance quickly through the topics they already know and focus on what they still need to learn.

Q | WGU is primarily an online university. How does that model work and why is it successful?

A | WGU’s unique model is about more than just being online; what makes it successful is the sum of all our unique parts. WGU is student-focused, individualized, supportive, and flexible—and all of it is designed to produce real results for nontraditional, busy adult students.

For one thing, WGU believes that learning independently doesn’t have to mean going it alone. Our faculty work not as instructors or professors, but as mentors, providing personalized support for each student.

Second, the model offers flexibility. Our students come from all kinds of backgrounds and unique situations that would make a traditional university setting a difficult if not impossible fit. Many live in rural areas, hundreds of miles from the nearest college, so attending classes on a physical campus is out of the question. Most WGU students work part- or full-time, balancing school with work and family obligations. For these students, logging in to class at a certain time of day or being constrained by the schedule of a semester and a syllabus is unrealistic. WGU’s programs recognize that learning can and should be possible independent of time or place—and in cases where physical, hands-on learning is essential, such as demonstration teaching in a physical classroom, WGU works directly with students and local school districts to place aspiring teachers in classrooms that are convenient to where they live.

Additionally, as a nonprofit university, WGU maintains a focus on affordability and quality. Tuition at WGU is about $6,000 a year for most programs—a flat rate that stays the same regardless of how many courses a student is able to finish in a given term (so students who finish faster also save money). There are no textbooks to buy, as all learning resources are available electronically and covered by a low flat fee. 

And finally, as the pioneer of the competency-based approach to learning, WGU provides an education that turns out graduates who are competent and ready for their jobs on day one. For our STEM education programs, that means science and math teachers who are trained and ready to step into the classroom and inspire the next generation of innovators.

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