Iowa's historical leadership in mathematics and science education is eroding at the very time our economy is demanding a math- and science-literate work force.

Iowa students, once global leaders, have slid to merely average among U.S. students. Only half of Iowa's college-bound students are ready for college algebra, according to the ACT. Mastery of math at this level is widely considered to be a "gateway" to majors in STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) fields. Figures are gloomier for our minority students and those with socioeconomic disadvantages.

Talented thinkers in math and science are the seed corn of Iowa's new economy anchored in bioscience, advanced manufacturing and information solutions. Teachers in these disciplines are needed. But due to challenges in teacher recruitment and retention, we have a teacher shortage.

Last year, of 2,648 positions, 173 science-teaching jobs and 121 math positions went unfilled across the state. Meanwhile, there are roughly 250 math and science teaching majors enrolled at our three state universities. Further exacerbating the problem, half of all new math and science teachers leave the profession in the first five years.

The Iowa Board of Regents recognized the challenge facing Iowa and established a Mathematics and Science Education Collaborative Initiative in early 2007. The University of Northern Iowa was asked to lead the initiative in collaboration with the University of Iowa and Iowa State University. The initiative's three goals are to improve the mathematics and science performance of Iowa students; to prepare more high-quality mathematics and science teachers for Iowa's schools; and promote statewide collaboration and cooperation.

The Iowa Legislature is considering an appropriations request to address the challenges. The proposal includes:

• A Regents Mathematics and Science Education Institute, to be located at UNI with faculty and staff distributed at all three state universities. It will leverage state collaborations to address student learning, and teacher recruitment and retention in math and science.

• Star Math and Science Majors to Teaching. This program addresses the teacher shortage by recruiting students into math and science teaching.

• Science and Math Teacher Real World Interns, which focuses on teacher retention and modernizing curricula.

• Wider implementation across Iowa of Project Lead The Way, which targets math and science curriculum and student recruitment to math and science careers.

• Community College STEM Instructor Preparation and Updates to address the shortage of math and science instructors at community colleges. The program also provides more distance-education math and science courses.

With these efforts, Iowa can re-establish our best-in-the-nation foundation in education. Iowa's economy is dependent on bright, prepared young graduates and highly qualified teachers to prepare our work force.

Jeff Weld is an associate professor of biology at UNI and an initiative leader for the Regents Mathematics and Science Education Initiative.