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From seeds to STEM

The goal? Equip teachers to inspire and enable students who historically haven’t had access to training for STEM fields.

December 1, 2016

Cory Phare

When it comes to the person at the front of a classroom, Colorado faces a disconnect: 90 percent of teachers are white, yet 43 percent of students are not.

Add to that the fact that women nationally account for only 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce, and it becomes clear that the pipeline into science, technology, engineering and math careers is not an easy one for populations outside of the majority.

“There’s still unfounded systemic issues in our culture that math and science are a white man’s world,” said Elizabeth R. Hinde, professor and dean of the MSU Denver School of Education. “A lot of the barriers nonwhite students face in STEM are because lower-income schools don’t offer the full range of math and science foundational classes they need to advance.”

That is exactly the disparity a National Science Foundation grant recently awarded to an MSU Denver faculty member aims to address. The $989,000 project is part of the NSF’s Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers program, and will create yearlong immersive training and residencies for elementary and middle school teachers in select Denver metro school districts.

The goal? Equip teachers to inspire and enable students who historically haven’t had access to the training for entry into STEM fields.

Principal investigator Janelle M. Johnson, Ph.D, is an assistant professor of STEM education in MSU Denver’s Department of Secondary, K-12 and Educational Technology, who sees education as a vehicle of empowerment. “When we hear people talk about the achievement gap, STEM areas have struggled with equitably engaging different populations, including women and underrepresented communities,” said Johnson. “STEM education is so popular right now, but it’s not being run in the places that need it the most.”

One of the ways the grant team is identifying high-opportunity areas is by recruiting partners based on numbers of students of color, English language learners, and those who receive free or reduced-price lunches. Current locations include schools in Englewood, Northglenn and Aurora.

Creating global problem-solvers

Kicking off with an intensive summer institute for pre- and in-service teachers, the project is truly an interdisciplinary undertaking. In addition to MSU Denver’s College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, the project also includes wide-ranging participants such as Community College of Denver, the GLOBE Program (a federal government science and education organization), and iscene (a Department of Education-funded technology facilitation platform).

A central component of the initiative is problem-based learning, or PBL. In this model, students work together on real-world environmental challenges, such as floods, wildfires or climate change. Professionals in these fields will engage students to explore solutions, and by proxy, discover potential job paths. This encourages further participation from regional partners and beyond, a key part of the community-based model intrinsic to the grant.

A community can extend beyond the classroom walls ‒ and in many cases, time zones. Thanks to data from GLOBE and the iscene platform, Colorado students will be able to study “alongside” those on the other side of the planet.

“The real power comes from the collaboration on real-world issues,” said Andri Ioannidoou, co-founder of iscene LLC. “In addition to content knowledge, they’re learning 21st century skills for college and life.”

Fostering competencies

To navigate the intersectional terrain of STEM education, Johnson said educators will also focus on building intercultural competency. As she noted, educators often unconsciously default to reflect the teaching – and the teacher – they’ve experienced themselves. That can send students a message that either encourages them or discourages them from participation. Or as Johnson put it, “It’s hard to find a teacher who doesn’t have good intentions, but if we don’t talk about implicit biases, we have blind spots.”

The solution? Provide a diverse base of STEM teachers within the community and the resources to meet students where they’re already at. The team plans to measure this initiative with pre- and post-assessments that specifically tie into pedagogical learning objectives.

Looking up

Johnson is optimistic about the future ‒ and with good reason. She’s also the recipient of a $74,000 Robert Noyce STEM teacher preparation grant from the NSF to expand efforts to secondary schools as well.

The opportunity to help students on such a scale is reflective of both the School of Education and the University. As both Johnson and Hinde noted, the MSU Denver community is here because it wants to have an impact on Denver and society writ large.

That involves changing the STEM pipeline to become more equitable. And it all begins with the individual student.

“Our faculty and teachers are on the front lines of transforming communities with a vision of how things could be,” said Hinde. “It’s our expertise; it’s what we do.”