Heather McNeill always wanted to be a teacher.
As a child, she preferred to play school with her little brother rather than playing with dolls. Chalkboards lined her walls, and chalk dust tickled her fingertips.
McNeill, 21, said she never had a defining moment that made her want to teach. She just always knew. She is now a mathematics senior at UF and a UFTeach scholar.
There are about 300 students in the program, according to Dimple Malik Flesner, associate director of the program.
UFTeach recruits outstanding science and math majors to earn a specialized minor in education through the program. This minor fulfills the professional preparation coursework for teachers that is required by the Florida State Board of Education Rule 6A-4.006(2).
"There is no other way to get a degree in math or science education at the undergraduate level," Flesner wrote in an email.
"We are filling a great need at UF and for the state of Florida."
UFTeach was recently recognized as one of STEMflorida's best practices in excellence and accountability in targeted science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and teacher recruitment and retention efforts, according to a June 21 STEMflorida news release.
Since 2009, STEMflorida has reviewed the competitive priorities of employers and professionals who rely on science, technology, engineering and math to prepare Florida's talent for the future, according to the organization's website.
The UFTeach program gets its funding from a five-year grant issued by the National Math and Science Initiative for $2.4 million along with an endowment from the Tampa-based Helios Education Foundation, according to the release.
Over the past year, UFTeach has made changes to methods of retention and recruitment, Flesner said.
The largest change has been using student volunteers and interns involved in UFTeach instead of the faculty and staff to recruit new members.
Once the students begin the UFTeach program, peer mentors are assigned to them according to their line of study.
McNeill is one of four math mentors, and there are also four science mentors.
The peer mentors encourage beginning students and help create and refine lesson plans before they teach in the field, McNeill said.
Flesner said UFTeach has revamped its website, now displaying up-to-date information and several student testimonials. The program has also been writing grants to offer more paid internships for students in the education minor.
"Students begin with early and well-supported field experiences in real classrooms from the first course in the program," Flesner said. "This allows them to decide if they truly like teaching."
McNeill will be attending graduate school for math education upon graduating in the spring, and then she plans to teach full time at the middle- or high-school level.
She is pleased to see the program receive recognition.
"Aside from learning all of the content knowledge and the pedagogy that goes along with being a good teacher," she said, "UFTeach imparts skills like being able to communicate with others, time management and other skills that you really don't find in a textbook."