BEMIDJI -- The Bemidji State University mathematics department was recently awarded a grant totaling $1,813,687 from the National Science Foundation, which will financially and emotionally support 16 mathematics and math education dual majors to help fill a critical shortage of qualified math teachers in Northern Minnesota.

The scholarships will cover the entirety of tuition and expenses for the selected students, as well as provide them support in finding a job, diversity training, a supportive learning community and a match in a teacher mentoring program.

The initiative is funded by the National Science Foundation’s Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program, which provides resources for higher education institutions to recruit and train science, technology, engineering and mathematics teachers for K-12 schools.

Todd Frauenholtz, professor of mathematics at BSU, is hopeful this program will help build great teachers who are ready to help fill the crucial shortage in northern Minnesota schools and support them through their early teaching career.

“We’ll take care of the students in every way we can if they are willing to do the work to complete the double major in time,” he said.

High-need schools

He said he has received letters from K-12 schools telling him about their need for qualified math teachers. Job openings often go unanswered, or have merely one applicant.

“The jobs are out there, that’s part of the reason that the National Science Foundation is supporting this project,” Frauenholtz explained. “It’s because there is a huge need for more math teachers -- that are good -- in high-need schools.”

Jenna O’Dell, assistant professor of mathematics, reiterated this point. “There is a need in this area for math teachers,” she said. “There are more jobs than there are teachers.”

One of the reasons BSU’s math department was selected to receive this grant is because of the high-need schools around the area, he added.

High-need schools are federally designated, and are usually identified based on the number of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch or the number of minority students, Frauenholtz explained.

The math department at BSU is no stranger to grants and accolades, Frauenholtz said, but this grant is unprecedented.

“It is a huge scholarship, I don’t know if people even realize that this kind of funding is possible for students,” he said. “It’s going to be a great deal for eight students this year, and eight students the next year.”

Who qualifies for these scholarships?

The grant will fund 16 students in two cohorts, eight students will begin in the 2021-22 school year and eight in the 2022-23 school year. The 2020-21 school year will be used for recruitment and planning.

Frauenholtz seemed a bit worried about recruitment. On average, the BSU math education program graduates three or four students a year, and another three or four students in math, he explained.

“Overall, we might have a total of seven majors, four will do math, four will do math (education) and one will do both. So it’s not a huge number,” he said. “Eight students in one year will be a lot for us. That’s a huge influx.”

Students will need to be able to finish the Noyce Scholars program in two years, so currently, students who are entering their sophomore year in the fall would qualify for the first cohort.

“If you know a student like this, have them contact us, because we are going to be looking hard,” he said. “It’s going to be hard to find eight students who are capable of completing a math and math (education) double major in those two years. If you know somebody in college, if they could graduate in 2022-23, we could support them and they could be a part of our program.”

O’Dell said recruitment is also happening at community colleges around northern Minnesota, where students could transfer to BSU after completing an associate’s degree. Noyce Scholars could also be high school students participating in Post-Secondary Education Option programs.

Additional support for scholars

Students who are accepted as Noyce Scholars at Bemidji State will not only receive full-tuition scholarships -- which covers the cost of books, housing and professional development conferences -- but also an additional stipend for other expenses.

“We tried to make it so we will be taking excellent care of these students so they can focus on becoming amazing teachers,” Frauenholtz said.

These students will also be surrounded by a community of support, in more ways than one.

BSU’s Noyce Scholars will receive specialized training in teaching diverse K-12 student populations through coursework and other educational opportunities. Some of this training will come through a partnership with Peacemaker Resources, a Bemidji-based non-profit that focuses on offering universal prevention tools to groups leading to systemic changes that benefit individuals and communities, according to its website.

“It's one of the things that makes this program really unique,” Frauenholtz said of working with Peacemaker Resources.

Noyce Scholars will engage in workshops with Peacemaker Resources at the beginning of each academic year and will meet monthly to discuss implementing social and emotional learning into their classrooms.

Additionally, program organizers will facilitate a learning community for each cohort to participate in group activities designed to strengthen camaraderie and develop professional support.

Frauenholtz said these learning communities have proven to be valuable in the past, and will help students support each other through the more difficult parts of the degree program.

“After calculus, math gets difficult, and it’s a whole different kind of difficult,” he explained. “It’s really helpful if they have community support.”

Each Noyce Scholar also will be paired with a regional teacher to act as a mentor and provide guidance -- both while scholars earn their degrees at BSU and through the first two years of their careers after graduation.

Regional teachers are welcome to apply to be mentors.

“They should get in touch with us and say, ‘Hey, I’m interested in mentoring,’ because I think that is going to be a key part of it for these teachers,” he said. “That relationship can be really important to help them grow into a teacher from a student.”

After graduating and receiving a teaching license, Noyce Scholars will continue to meet with their BSU faculty advisers and Peacemaker Resources monthly to ensure they are supported and successful in their early teaching career.

“Right now, over half of the student teachers in the U.S. are leaving in the first couple years of teaching because it’s such a tough job, and they are not prepared and they are not supported to be successful,” Frauenholtz said. “I’m hoping this program can help facilitate that and keep teachers in teaching and help them do it well.”

Interested students should contact Todd Frauenholtz or Jenna O’Dell at BSU for more information. Applications will be found on the BSU admissions website beginning in the fall.