‘A gamechanger:’ Sacred Heart University receives grant to train more STEM teachers

A sign at the entrance to Sacred Heart University’s west campus, in Fairfield, Conn. March 10, 2021.

A sign at the entrance to Sacred Heart University’s west campus, in Fairfield, Conn. March 10, 2021.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

FAIRFIELD — Sacred Heart University has received a $1.4 million grant designed to help get more STEM teachers into higher need schools.

Slated to be among the first to participate in the new program, which includes expanded courses and a mentorship program, are schools in Ansonia, Bridgeport and Stratford.

The money comes from the National Science Foundation’s five-year, Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarships and Stipends program. It’s geared toward increasing the effectiveness and number of highly qualified science, technology, engineering and math teachers who go on to work in high-need school districts in Connecticut and around the U.S.

“This is critical to our country’s growth,” said Bonnie Maur, co-director of the science, technology, engineering, arts and math program at Sacred Heart’s Isabelle Farrington College of Education. “Industry reports a shortage of graduates who are prepared to work in and lead our country in STEM areas, thus increasing the need for us to produce teachers who are prepared to teach elementary, middle and high school students and lead their students to love and be prepared to work in these shortage areas throughout our country.”

Through the program, students complete their undergraduate degree at Sacred Heart in STEM or a specific area within the STEM subjects. It’s then followed by a fifth year where candidates are certified to teach in Connecticut and earn a Master of Arts in Teaching.

According to Maur, there are currently 20 undergraduate STEM majors who will become elementary school teachers with an expertise in STEM, a relatively new major at the university. There are another 24 science and math majors who will also go on to become teachers.

The additional money will help Sacred Heart expand the number of students in the program and create a direct track from Housatonic Community College for STEM students into SHU’s program to become teachers of the subjects in their own communities, Maur said.

Of Housatonic Community College’s 4,455 students, 71 percent are from underrepresented minorities, 32 percent are first generation and 66 percent are eligible for Pell grants, which are awarded to students with high levels of unmet financial need, according to an SHU release.

About 80 students transferred from Housatonic to Sacred Heart between 2015 and 2018. The grant and resulting partnership will now offer more scholarships for eligible students to continue their education at SHU, according to the release.

“Noyce is an incredible opportunity for HCC STEM and teaching students, allowing student tuition support, mentorship and technology access while they pipeline from HCC as a graduate and matriculate into Sacred Heart University,” Robin Avant, HCC dean of academic affairs, said in a statement.

Spokesmen from the two schools said they will collaborate to create joint programs and better help with the transition.

Dwayne Smith, HCC’s chief executive officer, said he was excited about the partnership between the two schools on the grant.

“The grant’s impact on diversifying the STEM teacher workforce is dramatic, and this partnership will be a gamechanger,” Smith said.

The new program also expands the existing curriculum at Sacred Heart by including culturally responsive coursework and incorporating computer science as a major. It also enhances a STEM education seminar for undergraduates to cover culturally responsive teaching, grant writing, tips for finding a job and immersive technology and distance learning.

The program also includes mentoring, service learning and community involvement to help the students better prepare for their professional careers in high-need school districts.

The scholars each receive more than $40,500 from the grant to cover education costs to become teachers.

“All of the Noyce Scholars leave Sacred Heart to teach in priority needs districts,” Maur said. “They are committed to teach two years in a priority needs district for each year of their scholarship totaling six years for each scholar.”

Some of the target schools are in Virginia, New Jersey and Rhode Island, as well as Stratford, Naugatuck, Stamford and Fairfield within Connecticut.

The new five-year grant goes into effect this fall, beginning with the current sophomore candidates. It’s a follow up to another Noyce scholarship grant the university is just completing for secondary educators, as well as one in its third of five years for STEM majors who become elementary school teachers.