Prestige program helps student land teaching job

AUGUSTA, GA. – Because her mother, aunt, and uncle are all lawyers, Ashley Zappitell had always toyed with the idea of attending law school, but her love of science steered her toward chemistry and then forensics – at least until she realized she didn’t like the solitude of lab work.

“I like social interaction,” Zappitell said. “I loved chemistry; I have this strong love for forensics, but I love being around people, too.”

So she talked with Dr. Chad Stephens, Associate Professor of Organic Chemistry, who suggested the PRESTIGE program, a scholarship program that allows students to simultaneously earn a Bachelor of Science degree in one of the STEM content areas (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) as well as a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) degree in just five years.

Now, Zappitell is preparing to start her new job teaching forensics to high schoolers in Gwinnett County, and she’ll be doing it earning master’s degree pay.

“January 5 is my first day,” Zappitell said. “It was really awesome getting the job before I even graduated. The fact that a job was available in my field was really cool, and it was in forensics, which I really love. It is perfect.”

The program, supported by the National Science Foundation’s Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program, is designed to increase interest and participation in teaching middle or high school science and mathematics. According to Stephens, who along with Dr. Steven Page and Dr. Rebecca Harper helped spearhead the grant writing effort, it developed because of the overall need for science teachers and the fact that the existing academic structure didn’t attract many science teacher candidates.

“I think the problem was it was a science degree with added-on education classes, and because of that, it was hard to do in four years,” Stephens said. “Students could have taken five years to do it. But in five years, you graduate with only a BS, and that’s just not that appealing. But when you do this, you get a BS and an MAT, so you’ve got the graduate degree, which also bumps up your starting salary.”

To participate in the program, which awards qualifying students approximately $17,500 a semester, students agree to teach two years in a high-needs county for every semester of scholarship money they receive. For Zappitell, who was on an expedited track, that means she owes four years, which she found more appealing when the requirements changed to allow for opportunities in high-needs counties rather than the four partnering counties that were part of the original requirement.

“In the past six months, it has changed so that you don’t have to work in a high-needs school, you just have to work in a county that has a high-needs school,” Stephens said. “This change greatly increases the number of schools that students can complete their payback in.”

By broadening the definition, students are allowed to teach almost anywhere they want, Stephens said.

Part of the program’s recruitment strategy is to provide students opportunities to be supplemental instructors, which Stephens said is similar to a teaching assistant but with more classroom instruction.

“The idea is that if we can get students to do this, it would give them a chance to see what being a teacher is like, and if they like it, we tell them they might want to check out our program,” Stephens said. “It’s a chance for them to get their feet wet.”

Historically, an SI was meant to benefit the students taking the class, but when they wrote the grant, they decided to fund the positions with an idea that those who were teaching might also get some benefit. And for Zappitell, that’s exactly what happened.

“I loved the interaction with the students,” she said. “I loved it when they understood an idea I was teaching them. When that look gets in their eye, when it just clicks for them, it’s just the most amazing sight in the world.”

Though she found some of the education classes a little difficult, since they were sometimes filled with early childhood teachers and those with varying degrees and interests, she said the assistance she received in job searching was very beneficial.

“There are a lot of resources at our school for finding jobs,” she said. “I’m kind of a go-getter, so I just kind of have a tendency to do things by myself, but if you had no clue what to do, there’s a plethora of resources and a lot of people who are willing to help.”

While Zappitell is an example of a more traditional student, Stephens said the program is particularly attractive to older students who have a good foundation in science and realize that teaching can be a good career.

It’s also earning a reputation outside of Augusta. In the summer of 2013, chemistry major Hannah Wingrove transferred to GRU from the University of Georgia specifically for the opportunity to participate in the PRESTIGE program.

For more information on the PRESTIGE Program, click here.

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