MARTIN, Tenn. — The start of fall classes brings college campuses back to life. State Rep. Harry Brooks (R-Knoxville) and his wife, Mary, experienced the beginning of a new academic year for themselves Monday as they joined thousands of students for the first day of fall semester at the University of Tennessee at Martin. The Brookses weren’t taking classes, but they traveled across the state to see what and how students are learning in today’s college environment.
Brooks, who represents the 19th District, traveled to Martin in his role as chairman of the House Education Committee. Mary, a retired schoolteacher, joined him on the visit as he focused on teacher preparation, STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education, higher education funding and affordability and other topics. UT Martin students and alumni advocates also met with the lawmaker.
“We’re pleased that Rep. Brooks chose to visit UT Martin for the start of fall classes,” said Dr. Tom Rakes, UT Martin chancellor. “His interest in teacher preparation and STEM education mirrors our own efforts to prepare students for jobs in a changing technological environment.”
Brooks has served 10 years on the House Education Committee, which he first chaired in 2009. Two years later, he was appointed to lead the Children and Family Affairs and the Joint Ad Hoc Education Finance committees. He again chairs the House Education Committee.
Brooks’ campus listening tour began in the College of Education, Health, and Behavioral Sciences. “What can we as a state do to improve and partner with you folks in preparing people to be good teachers?” he asked in a meeting of academic administrators from the college that also included Dr. Jerald Ogg, UT Martin’s chief academic officer. Brooks highlighted the university’s “impact and influence in regard to developing teachers” and heard for the first time about the university’s Teacher Warranty Program that assures the classroom skills of teacher education graduates.
Beyond the Martin campus, Dr. Mark Kelley, college dean, said that the four UT Martin centers in Jackson, Ripley, Parsons and Selmer each offer an education degree. Dr. Betty Cox, interim chair for the Department of Educational Studies, added “the majority of those teacher ed preparation graduates actually stay in those areas,” which has a direct impact on local schools and communities.
Both expressed concern to Brooks in two areas, one being funding cuts to special-education preparation after next summer that could affect the availability of qualified special education teachers. The other is the state’s decision to no longer support pay raises for teachers who earn master’s degrees.
These issues remain topics for discussion among elected officials and education professionals, Brooks said, including the state’s need to send clear messages about the value of education, especially with the emphasis on Gov. Bill Haslam’s “drive to 55 program” for increasing the percentage of Tennesseans with a postsecondary degree.
Brooks noted the relatively low “cost of delivery of services” for students attending UT Martin. “If you could come out of a Tennessee high school with a Hope Scholarship and any kind of Pell assistance, well you’re in great shape,” he said.
Brooks’ introduction to the university’s STEM education efforts included discussions about engineering, agriculture and the sciences. Dr. Rich Helgeson, engineering and natural sciences dean, said that the engineering program includes approximately 250 students and graduates 30-40 students annually.
“All of the engineering faculty have practiced as engineers,” he said. “That’s pretty unusual when you look at most programs.” He also highlighted the hands-on nature of the program, required student internships and the yearlong capstone project required of all engineering students. He reported that between 80 to 85 percent of engineering graduates now work in West Tennessee.
In the sciences, Helgeson reported that seven of the 10 graduates in either chemistry or biology who applied for medical school were accepted at the UT Health Science Center. Also, two chemistry majors finished in first and second place respectively in an undergraduate research competition at the most recent Southeast Regional Conference for the American Chemical Society.
Dr. Todd Winters, agriculture and applied sciences dean, reported similar success for UT Martin students attending veterinary school, with nine students accepted to vet school this fall. He also highlighted programs in geology, geography and meteorology. Agriculture, a specific interest for Brooks, included activity summaries in agriculture engineering technology, precision agriculture, energy and aquaculture. A compression strength demonstration in an engineering lab concluded the STEM overview.
Among his afternoon stops, Brooks met with UT Martin students in the university’s Paul Meek Library. Each told about individual academic goals, and Brooks recalled his educational and career experiences that led to his current service as an elected official.
“It was really hard in high school trying to figure out what you wanted to do,” said Caleb Watts, a criminal justice student from McKenzie. Responding to the comment, Brooks said, “We are looking at that very issue. … We’re trying to find a way to find college and career counselors.” One idea, he said, is to identify small groups of high schools and assign a person to handle college and career counseling for those schools.
Megan Burcham, an engineering student from Martin, said she knew of students entering UT Martin with up to 30 hours of college credit. She entered the university with only six hours of college credit and said “high schools should be more willing to accept college help to prepare students.” Brooks responded, “I’d like to see … every child to have the opportunity to pick up a minimum of 18 hours (of college credit in high school).”
Brooks wished the students success in their educational endeavors and emphasized the value of their academic pursuits.
“Don’t ever think that it’s going to be easy,” he said. “You’ll have times that are tough ahead of you, but you’ll have a foundation academically that you can always fall back on, and that’s important.”