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$1.2 Million National Science Foundation Grant Helps Turn STEM Majors Into STEM Educators

The University of Kentucky wants to not only recruit more students into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors, but also train those students to become STEM educators.

Through a collaborative effort led by the UK College of Education, the UK College of Arts and Sciences and the UK College of Engineering, the “UK Noyce STEM PLUS: Producing Leaders for Urban/rUral Schools” project aims to attract UK students, especially students from underrepresented populations, to a unique undergraduate certification program in which they graduate with a double major in a STEM content area(s) and STEM education. The team will also work closely with Fayette County Public Schools (FCPS) to recruit graduating high school students into STEM and/or STEM education majors.

“The Commonwealth of Kentucky continues to see a great need for high-quality STEM teachers,” said Margaret Mohr-Schroeder, principal investigator and professor of STEM education in the UK College of Education. “Each year, we are contacted by dozens of principals, after the school year has started, still looking to fill STEM positions in their schools. We are excited about the new Noyce funding, as this will be a great incentive for STEM majors to pursue their education passion as well as their STEM passion. Through the double major program and our school and industry partnerships, the students will be uniquely prepared to make an immediate impact at whatever high needs school they decide to teach.”

The program has been funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) for $1.2 million over the next five years and will serve as a sustainable model for increasing student achievement in STEM areas and encouraging K-12 students to pursue STEM majors and careers.

One of the major goals of the program is to provide these students with economic and cultural knowledge related to STEM development in urban and rural high needs areas, especially around energy and manufacturing challenges. In return for receiving one to two years of fellowship support, the Noyce fellows are expected to teach two to four years in a high-needs school district in Kentucky, with an emphasis in urban areas of Lexington and Louisville and rural Appalachia.

Brett Criswell, co-PI and assistant professor of STEM education, says there have been concerns about STEM education and a STEM-skilled workforce in Kentucky for quite some time.

“This NSF grant will allow us to recruit a diverse pool of talented pre-service teachers into our STEM PLUS undergraduate certification program, and then prepare them to enact innovative teaching practices,” Criswell said. “There are unique aspects to the program, such as opportunities for summer externships in STEM industries and opportunities to teach STEM in informal settings. These are a result of numerous partnerships that the grant’s project leadership team has worked to develop. It will be through such partnerships that we will produce STEM teachers who can prepare a strong, STEM-skilled workforce.”

Robin Cooper, associate professor of biology in the UK College of Arts and Sciences and senior personnel on the grant, says it is important to have faculty in departments across campus collaborating to create teachers with strong content knowledge.

“It is so important that UK be active in promoting STEM education to future and current educators throughout our state so that future citizens have an appreciation and understanding of STEM,” Cooper said. “In addition, I enjoy learning content as well from working with other colleagues in such group projects.  I feel it is important that faculty in the basic science departments and College of Engineering work with the faculty in the College of Education so we can complement each other’s long-term goals and utilize each other’s expertise.”

Bruce Walcott, co-PI and professor of electrical and computer engineering, says his college has been working closely with Mohr-Schroeder and the College of Education for over a decade on prior NSF Noyce awards, and they’re excited to be involved again in the STEM PLUS program.

“Dr. Mohr-Schroeder spearheaded a curriculum that permits our current undergrads to double major with a minimum of additional hours and now the STEM Plus program provides financial support for qualified interested engineers and computer scientists. Historically, such teachers bring real-world applications to K-12 STEM classrooms,” Walcott said. “We have developed numerous engineering lessons for pre-service and in-service teachers over the life of the prior Noyce grants during a unique summer symposiums. In the new STEM PLUS Noyce program, we will develop even more lessons but this time they will be delivered during the school year rather than over the summer. By switching to this school year training model, STEM teachers will be able to implement such plans immediately rather than waiting until the fall.”

Students in the program will still have opportunities to participate in a summer institute aimed at increasing content knowledge, especially around Kentucky Academic Standards and Practices, and their implications for their classroom instruction.

STEM PLUS is the newest UK project to receive Noyce funding from the NSF. UK has been providing scholarships and educating students through its Noyce program since 2007, primarily for its Master of Arts in Secondary Education with Initial Certification (MIC). Christy Williams, a teacher at George Rogers Clark High School in Winchester, Kentucky, graduated from this program in 2008 as one of the first recipients of the Noyce scholarship.

“Participating in the Noyce grant has been one of the most enriching experiences I have been a part of during my years as an educator,” Williams said. “Being a part of Noyce has allowed me to participate in the most useful professional development experiences of my education career. My students and I have greatly benefited from the positive experiences I have had due to my participation with Noyce.”

From Jenny Wells, UK Public Relations and Marketing