UTeach Alumnus Fueled by Teaching Math and Science
Gianfranco Herrera BS’11 and his wife, Alysha Herrera BS’11, met at UT Dallas and now both work at Sci-Tech Discovery Center in Frisco. She is the registrar and he is the Discovery Lead.
The kids chatter with each other on colorful squares of carpet, their legs and pony tails bouncing with excitement. But they quiet when their teacher, 24-year-old Gianfranco Herrera BS’11, holds up a large white pail of liquid nitrogen in his blue-gloved hands.
“Stay seated,” he reminds them.
The group of boys and girls start a countdown in hushed voices. At the 20 count, Herrera spills the pail so their little bodies are covered in a cloud of smoke while he explains the science behind it. One of the youngest raises his hand with a question. Herrera smiles.
As a teacher, this is exactly the response he is looking for.
Franco is one of the first graduates of UTeach Dallas, a University program launched in 2008 to increase the number of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors interested in becoming new secondary science or mathematics teachers.
“Solid content knowledge is critically important for teaching, and science and mathematics students are getting that content from UT Dallas,” said Dr. Mary Urquhart, associate professor and head of the Department of Science/Mathematics Education. “Passion for sharing that knowledge is something else entirely and equally valuable, a quality that UTeach Dallas seeks to identify and foster in our students as early as possible in their college careers.”
Before Herrera became who he is today—the confident supervisor of training, curriculum and presentations at Sci-Tech Discovery Center in Frisco—he faced his fears at UT Dallas.
“I was never a good public speaker. It was always tough for me to clarify what I wanted to say and to get the nerve to say it,” he explained. But the UTeach Dallas program pushed him forward with rigorous classes and student teaching in the trenches, at elementary, middle and high schools. “It was sink or swim. Whenever you’re in front of a group of kids and you don’t know your stuff, they will let you know,” said Herrera, who began an internship two years ago at Sci-Tech, a non-profit that provides hands-on experiences in science, math and technology. “Kids will laugh at you.”
But more often, the children Herrera teaches are in awe.
“In one of my first elementary school classes, I was swinging a homemade foam ball from a string,” he explained. “The ball wasn’t going anywhere, just like the moon is not going anywhere. The concept of something unseen, like gravity, is hard for kids. But with an example like this, there’s an ‘aha’ moment.”
Before deciding to be a teacher, Herrera was working on becoming a network engineer and was majoring in telecommunications. Now, he said, “instead of linking computers together, I’m linking information together for kids.”
The UTeach Dallas program puts students through their paces.
One of Herrera’s favorites was the Knowing and Learning in Science and Mathematics class. During one session, instructor Barbara Curry used Legos to show the basic principles of teaching. The exercise with the little plastic blocks left an impression on Herrera. “When it comes to teaching a child, you can’t assume,” he said. “Don’t take things for granted. You have to show and explain everything.”
UTeach Dallas is part of the nationally recognized UTeach program launched by UT Austin. Since it began three years ago, UTeach Dallas has expanded rapidly to include 350 students. With two classes eligible for tuition reimbursement, the program has started to draw freshmen interested in teaching careers. Among the students who pursue teaching certification, almost 60 percent are science majors who want to teach science; 40 percent are math majors with a passion for teaching math.
“Gianfranco’s ability to combine his own knowledge of and passion for science to inspire the next generation of STEM majors and scientifically literate citizens is an absolute success story for our program,” Urquhart said.
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