RICHLAND -- Wrapped in a white lab coat, her eyes shielded by goggles, Rama Devagupta leaned over the laboratory beakers.
She eyed a thermometer and, satisfied, moved on to the next group.
She seemed perfectly at home among the test tubes and periodic tables. It's no wonder -- she has a doctoral degree in bioorganic chemistry.
But although this experiment took place a stone's throw from the national lab in Richland, this was no cutting-edge research.
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Devagupta was at Hanford High School, surrounded by students examining glow sticks, as one of a dozen teaching interns working in Southeastern Washington this school year.
These career changers -- many qualified to work in higher-paying fields -- are on an unusual path to become certified teachers, one that puts them at the center of a national conversation.
Alternative Pathways to Teacher Preparation allows certain professionals to bypass traditional teacher training at a university and instead learn the trade hands-on. They end up with the same certificate as teachers who go the traditional route.
Impetus for Alternative Pathways was to find teachers in hard-to-fill subject areas, said Toni Neidhold, coordinator for Educational Service District 123, which administers the program.
State agencies determine which subject areas lack teachers from year to year. This year, as in most, those are science, math, special education and English-language learning.
Aside from having experience in one of these fields, applicants need have at least a bachelor's degree. They must complete a moral character and fitness questionnaire, just like any other teacher in the state. They also have to pass two tests, like any teacher, to show they know their subject matter of choice and have proper reading and writing skills.
And if they are career changers they must prove one year of work experience.
When the program started in 2002, five years of work experience were required of applicants, said Mea Moore, director of the program at the state's Professional Educator Standards Board.
In 2009, the Legislature changed that prerequisite to one year, acting in response to shortages of math and science teachers, Moore said.
In Southeastern Washington, the program became available in the summer of 2009 with 11 interns -- as participants are called -- that year.
The 10 interns who wanted a full-time teaching job got one at the end of that school year. The 11th had decided he just wanted to be a substitute.
That success rate is par for the program, in part because the candidates are ready to teach understaffed subjects, and because they're intimately familiar with their workplace by the time they apply.
"It's basically a yearlong job interview," Neidhold said.
Near-certainty of getting a job makes up for the sacrifices most of the career changers accept.
One reason why math and science teachers are harder to find is that "people who are good at math and science can go into other professions and make more money," said Rexton Lynn, program coordinator at Central Washington University, which supervises the internships and course work.
Teacher colleges "can't seem to attract enough undergraduate students in these subject areas," he said.
But by the midpoint of their careers enough professionals seem to be willing to trade a higher income for teaching the next generation of engineers and researchers.
About 1,000 interns have gone through the program in the eight years since it started, Moore said, and 90 percent ended up with a certificate. This year, 173 interns are in classrooms around the state.
Aside from the lower-paying job they're willing to accept, there's also the immediate expense and income foregone. It's impossible to work full time -- or even part time, really -- during the program year, Neidhold said.
The year starts with intensive instruction in theory from June to August, followed by weekend theory sessions for the first few months of the school year. And by the second semester the interns are expected to lead a classroom, prepare lesson plans and correct homework and exams.
There's also tuition of just over $8,000, although that blow is softened as that cost is often reimbursed by the state. Interns can apply for a conditional loan that covers the full tuition, and if they teach in Washington for two years the loan is forgiven.
But like so many state expenses these days, the future of that scholarship is uncertain.
"Everybody's looking at this (legislative) session," Moore said. "There's no way to predict what's going to happen this time around."
Without the scholarship, or with limited access to it, it will be a lot harder to find applicants, she said.
"I don't know what the program would look like," Moore said.
The teacher intern at Hanford High says the scholarship made it possible for her to start a new career in education. "It's because of the scholarship that I was able to join this program," Devagupta said.
And she is badly needed in the profession, according to the teacher who's teaching Devagupta.
"I know a lot of science teachers in their 50s," said Cathy Stordeur, the chemistry teacher whose classroom is Devagupta's training ground. "I don't know how we'll replace them. We'll need programs like this."
And Devagupta would not only replace basic science teachers -- she could fill a very particular niche.
"Rama is the first person I've seen in years that is actually qualified and interested in teaching Advanced Placement classes," Stordeur said.
Those college-level classes taught in high schools take a lot more skill and effort to teach, she said.
The interns bring a lot of life and work experience to their new positions. But their training may also put them a step ahead in classroom management and student motivation.
Traditional teacher training usually involves about 12 weeks of interning in schools -- sometimes even less.
A panel convened by the national agency that accredits teachers recently called for more on the job training in teacher preparation, and for making teacher education similar to how doctors are trained.
Washington's Legislature has pre-empted that directive. "Starting next fall, every institution has to have a plan for an alternative pathway," said CWU's Lynn.
Now, only two service districts in Eastern Washington offer the alternative path to being a certified teacher.
"The trend is to incorporate more field experience in teaching programs," Lynn said.