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Kevin Mason and Brian McAlister recently went to the Northern Wisconsin State Fair in Chippewa Falls but not to sample the corn dogs or to take a spin on the Ferris wheel.
They were working on a state and national problem: A shortage of science, math and technology teachers.
Hundreds of young people were walking the grounds on the fair's opening afternoon, Wednesday, July 9. Although they were there to have fun, they will have to make a decision sometime in the not-too-distant future about what career to pursue.
In the fair's Science and Technology Building, Mason and McAlister, from the School of Education at University of Wisconsin-Stout, took turns working at a booth. Their goal was to interest some of those young people in becoming teachers.
Mason and McAlister engaged curious passers-by in a momentum experiment with a spinning bicycle wheel or in a density experiment with an object floating in a bottle of water, along with other attractions.
One young boy, Nolan Zimmerman, 10, of Chippewa Falls, held the wheel while standing on a movable disk, and he found his body turning in whatever direction he aimed the spinning wheel. "When you turn the wheel, it turns you," Mason told him, explaining one of the laws of physics.
"These are all the fun things you can do as science teachers," Mason told the boy.
Behind Mason was a poster for the technology education program at UW-Stout. It read: "Teach what you love; explore new technologies; transform future generations."
The UW-Stout booth would have made President Obama smile. He has been pushing the U.S. to recruit and train 100,000 new science and math teachers by 2021 to avoid what is expected to be a major shortage in the coming years.
A shortage also is expected in Wisconsin, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.
Jobs in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — are expected to outpace the supply of trained workers by 2.4 million by 2018, according to a recent story by U.S. News and World Report.
Without enough trained science, math and technology teachers, chances are many of those STEM jobs — the kind that help drive innovation and the economy — will go unfilled. "We need STEM teachers preparing students for STEM careers," said Mason, an associate professor and director of the science education program at UW-Stout.
In addition to the technology education and science education programs, UW-Stout offers a Bachelor of Science teacher training program as a combination of the two along with another in career and technical education and training. A concentration in math education is offered through the STEM College.
Faculty from the career and technical education program were at the fair Thursday, July 10.
"Our program areas, in the fields of education, are very different than other universities," said McAlister, noting that only UW-Platteville in the UW System also offers a technology education program. "Science, math and technology education is a nice blend."
What's the problem?
Why is there a teacher shortage in science, math and technology? Graduates with STEM educations often receive higher-paying job offers in private industry, and interest in teaching in general has been down, especially in Wisconsin, Mason and McAlister said.
On the other hand, teaching jobs in those fields are plentiful. In the most recent UW-Stout report, graduates in STEM-based education majors reported 100 percent employment. "There's no shortage of jobs," said McAlister, director of UW-Stout's School of Education.
Plus, there's job security with little chance of science and math courses getting cut from school curriculums. "If you love science and working with kids, then it's a perfect career," Mason said.
Veronica Klenke, 13, who will be an eighth-grader this fall at Bloomer Middle School, tried a couple of Mason's experiments and looked at a rock collection. She had attended the STEPS for Girls program last summer at UW-Stout and is considering becoming a teacher. STEPS for Girls is a hands-on summer program in science, technology and engineering.
"I like teaching and helping people," she said, adding that she particularly liked building her own robot at STEPS last summer.
Next to Mason and McAlister was Joan Ebnet, marketing coordinator for the Admissions Office at UW-Stout. She was awarding spin-the-wheel prizes, giving pins to alumni and reminding booth visitors that UW-Stout is just a short drive away.
"We're right in the backyard (in this area) and a lot of students don't know where we're located," Ebnet said.
Fall is a busy time for Admissions as high school seniors begin the process of choosing where they want to go to college in fall 2015.
Admissions had a booth all five days of the fair, July 9-13.
Top: Kevin Mason helps Nolan Zimmerman, 10, of Chippewa Falls with a momentum experiment. At left is Nolan's father, Ryan.
Middle: Brian McAlister
Bottom: Mason shows Veronica Klenke, 13, of Bloomer, a rock