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Professor fights to keep education science program

Mel Strong assists sophomore Maddison Weaver with making a compass using a magnetized needle at the University of New Mexico’s Science and Math Learning Center last week as part of a class that prepares education majors to teach science at a child’s level. The program is scheduled to be cut amid the university’s budget crunch. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Mel Strong assists sophomore Maddison Weaver with making a compass using a magnetized needle at the University of New Mexico’s Science and Math Learning Center last week as part of a class that prepares education majors to teach science at a child’s level. The program is scheduled to be cut amid the university’s budget crunch. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — As University of New Mexico deans begin to figure out how to operate on shrinking budgets, one lecturer is launching a campaign to save his program that prepares education majors to teach science to kids.

ABDALLAH: “Each dean is going to get a bill”

ABDALLAH: “Each dean is going to get a bill”

At a time when the number of science majors isn’t on pace to fill the scientific jobs, the school’s Natural Science Program leader Mel Strong said his program should not be cut, and he is asking students and supporters to write to the university provost and his dean to help save it.

Without the program, education majors are left with core science classes that Strong says are not helpful in preparing them to function in the classroom.

“How do you teach electricity, for example, to, say, a fourth-grader? Well, you aren’t going to learn how to do that sitting in a Physics 101 class,” said Strong of the large lecture

PECENY: Other classes can fill the gap

PECENY: Other classes can fill the gap

classes that teach college-level theory. “In this program, you’re going to learn electricity the same way a fourth-grader or sixth-grader is going to learn electricity and have hands-on projects.”

Still, the program is on the chopping block in the College of Arts and Sciences and is one among other programs and positions targeted across the campus as the university prepares to meet at least a $3.5 million shortfall.

“We probably would not be considering this course of action if the university were not facing a 1.5 percent budget cut this year,” said College of Arts and Sciences Dean Mark Peceny.

UNM Provost Chaouki Abdallah said every department at the school will be taking a budget hit.

“We are trying to minimize the cuts to the academic side as much as possible,” said Abdallah. “But each dean is going to get a bill, basically, saying this is how much you have to cut.”

That amount was expected to be determined last week and presented to 11 of the university’s deans, who then must figure out what to cut.

“We are trying to be as fair as possible, trying not to hurt people too much, but everybody is going to get cut,” Abdallah said.

Peceny said other classes on campus can fill the science content area requirement education majors need for their degree. He said the university in the last four years has revamped some of those classes to make them more accessible and appropriate for student teachers.

But Strong said his program is the only one designed for student teachers, which make up about 90 percent of his students.

“The College of Arts and Sciences takes very seriously its responsibility to provide the content courses our future teachers need to succeed in the classroom,” Peceny said. “We are seriously considering discontinuing this program only because we are confident that our future K-8 educators can get exactly what they need from the new and reformed core curriculum science courses.”

Some of those classes include a Chemistry in Our Community class that “interweaves the fundamentals of chemistry with topics of local, national and global importance,” Peceny said. “The course mixes lecture and active learning methodologies, including some hands-on activities.”

Peceny said other science content classes, like the school’s Earth and Planetary Sciences 101 and biology class, have been updated from the traditional lecture format and now include more hands-on and current event-oriented perspective.

But Strong said UNM students who want to be teachers have a difficult time taking the college-level, theoretical sciences, especially those taught in large lecture halls, and translating the lessons into activities for children.

Plus, he said, science standards now for elementary and middle-school students span several science topics, including biology, engineering, physics, environmental science and weather.

“Think how many classes you would have to take to cover all of these topics,” Strong said.

The program has operated at UNM for 20 years and covers three main fields in its series of hands-on classes.

Strong and Peceny said the classes will be offered next semester, but future courses are under discussion.

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