06/12/2012 04:46 pm ET Updated Aug 12, 2012

Where Are the Science Teachers of Tomorrow?

Leaders from business, nonprofit and government joined together in Chicago last week at the Clinton Global Initiative to find new ways to stimulate economic growth in the United States -- and one of the leading answers was beef up our country's math and science talent.

This time last year, the National Math and Science Initiative made a commitment to the CGI to expand dramatically our teacher training programs. We are on track to meet that commitment to train 5,000 math and science teachers and more. I was excited that the need to train more math and science teachers continued to be a major point of discussion in Chicago last week.

My own experience as a parent as well as an educator has taught me about the great need to bring more math and science talent into teaching the next generation.

When my daughter was in the fourth grade, I assumed she was receiving some introductory learning about the many varieties of science that are so important in our world today -- after all, science shapes everything around us, from the biology of antibiotic-free beef to the engineering in our iPods. I happened to ask her what she was studying in science and discovered that she only had one hour of classwork that year that was focused on science. I was stunned.

When I talked to her school's leaders about the lack of science instruction, they explained that they would like to offer more, but they didn't have enough teachers with a math and science background.

I volunteered to teach some classes myself to help fill that gap. As a college dean with degrees in biology, chemistry and physiology, I thought I could handle it. I soon discovered that teaching fourth-graders was vastly different from teaching undergraduate courses. A different set of pedagogical skills is necessary to reach elementary students in an engaging, effective way.

I became even more acutely aware that the need for qualified math and science teachers was not a localized problem. Most school districts across the country are struggling with a shortage of teachers with expertise in science, technology, engineering and math -- what has become known as the "STEM" subjects. In fact, the U.S. is facing a shortage of 280,000 STEM teachers by 2015.

According to National Academies reports, in the crucial middle-school preparatory years, more than two-thirds (69 percent) of 5th-8th graders are being taught math by teachers without a mathematics degree or certificate and 93 percent of those same students are being taught physical sciences by teacher with no physical science degree or certificate.

The problem is particularly pervasive in high-poverty schools and schools with high minority populations. The Education Trust has reported that in high poverty schools, two in five math classes have teachers without a college certification in math.

I turned to some of the master teachers at The University of Texas at Austin and asked: What could be done to produce more qualified math and science teachers? How could we help solve the STEM teacher shortage in the U.S., not for my daughter's sake, but for our country's future? Math and science are the currency of the 21st century.

The master teachers came up with an ingenious plan to combine the STEM expertise of the School of Natural Sciences with the Department of Education. This collaborative effort would encourage brainy majors in the critical areas of science, technology, engineering and math to become classroom teachers.

The result was the UTeach program, which now is 15 years old and has produced more than 600 new math and science teachers at The University of Texas in Austin alone. But the story doesn't stop there. The UTeach program was selected in 2007 to be part of the National Math and Science Initiative and is being replicated at 29 university campuses across the country this year. Thanks to that national replication, enrollment in UTeach has nearly quintupled to a record 5,500 students.

It's encouraging that more than 800 graduates from the UTeach sites received their diplomas this spring in math and science and are prepared to teach. By 2020, UTeach graduates will have taught more than 4 million students, many in high needs schools.

But the job is not finished. More universities will need to get on board to produce the numbers of new STEM teachers that America requires.

At CGI America, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, where four universities are implementing the UTeach program, said he was encouraged by the number of our country's "best and brightest" who are going into teaching. "You're seeing that talent level make a difference in education," he said.

I agree. The CGI meeting was a timely reminder that it should be a top national priority to groom a new generation of math and science teachers, for everyone's sake.

Dr. Mary Ann Rankin, former Dean of the College of Natural Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin, is President and CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative.