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NSF Awards $1.3 Million for Science and Engineering After School Program

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded the School of Education at Virginia Tech and the College of Education at the University of Kentucky $1.3 million to implement and evaluate an inquiry-based after school program for middle school students in rural Appalachia. The three-year project, titled “Studio STEM: Engaging Middle School Students in Networked Science and Engineering Projects,” uses engineering design activities that integrate digital modeling, social media and game development tools to engage youth in investigating concepts and skills to integrate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). This new project is funded through the Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) Program at NSF.

Michael A. Evans, associate professor in the Department of Learning Sciences and Technologies at Virginia Tech, serves as the principal investigator.

“Studio STEM is unique because it uses social media, the Internet, and digital communication technologies to engage middle school youth in science and engineering,” Evans said. “We’ve taken technologies often used for leisure and applied them toward purposeful ends. Our goal in Studio STEM is to prepare youth for the 21st century workplace where these skills are essential.”

Christine Schnittka, assistant professor in the UK Department of STEM Education, is serving as principal investigator on the UK portion of the collaborative project. Other collaborators include Brett Jones from the Department of Learning Sciences and Technologies at Virginia Tech and Carol Brandt from Temple University.

“All children are natural engineers – they want to tackle the problems that are relevant to their lives, but often don’t have the tools, resources, or confidence to even begin,” Schnittka said. “Children in rural, isolated Appalachian communities will benefit from Studio STEM as they work with mentors to engineer solutions, apply the math and science they learn in school, and connect to others.”

At three after school sites in southwestern Virginia, Studio STEM provides teacher workshops and opportunities for middle school youth to explore relationships between energy transfer and engineering design in a studio setting. A design studio is a learning environment in which collaborative, problem-based learning is integrated with digital tools and online data exchange. Youth design, build, test, re-design, and re-test their ideas as they explore the materials and processes related to energy transfer and environmental issues related to energy conservation and sustainability.

The UK College of Education is developing engineering design-based curricula to engage youth in real-world issues related to energy sustainability and the environment. Science and mathematics conceptual understanding is key to the curriculum design. While these curricula are being implemented in after-school settings in rural western Virginia, they are also being used locally at middle schools in Central Kentucky, and in Kenton County, Ky.

The College of Education will lead teacher training in science and engineering for the grant, and evaluating the effectiveness of these curricula. Virginia Tech investigators add training on social media and motivating students, while Temple focuses on studio-based learning.

The Studio STEM model uses a team-based approach, led by teachers selected from the school sites with assistance from undergraduate science and engineering majors at Virginia Tech who act as volunteer facilitators.

“By asking the right questions at the right time, these mentors motivate and reassure girls and boys that they have the ability to solve difficult problems,” Brandt said. “The undergraduates help youth build the confidence they need to participate in science and engineering.”

Career exploration is another major component of Studio STEM and the project is partnering with the local engineering and technology businesses in southern Appalachia through the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council and the Science Museum of Western Virginia to offer youth information about new, emerging careers in technology, science, and engineering.

Studio STEM serves as a model for partnerships among universities, rural schools, science museums and centers, and businesses that can be adopted to address local education, professional development, and workforce needs.

“Studio STEM engages students in fun learning activities that involve important science, technology, engineering, and math concepts without the pressure of standardized testing,” Jones said. “By collecting and analyzing real-world data to test their ideas and solve problems, students get firsthand experiences in what it’s like to be a scientist and engineer.”

Schnittka summarized the goal of Studio STEM by saying, “Our hope is that youth will begin to feel empowered to be problem solvers for the world, see themselves as change agents, and see the relevance of STEM disciplines in their lives and communities.”

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