Emily Dare loves astrophysics, but her small-town high school in New Jersey had trouble keeping science teachers. That shaped Dare’s work today in St. Paul and east metro schools: using research to improve education through integrating science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
Dare wants to see students inspired to pursue careers in the sciences. She helps teachers create that excitement in their students.
As a teacher of teachers, Dare observes during classroom visits, then works with teachers to create a curriculum plan that will efficiently integrate STEM education into their K–12 classrooms. In the past three years, Dare has worked with more than 150 teachers in St. Paul and its suburbs.
One of those teachers is Dave Rafferty, a middle school science teacher in Woodbury. He had been teaching for more than 25 years when Minnesota adopted engineering as a part of its state science standards. Though he felt like a good science teacher, he didn’t think his interest in the engineering field matched his ability to teach it.
When Rafferty heard about a new STEM education professional development program at the University two years ago, he immediately wanted to participate. In the year-long program, he and other teachers would meet monthly with a STEM education expert and attend a three-week intensive course that would help them write a new curriculum to use in their own classrooms.
“Right away, I felt like I was a valuable part of a team,” Rafferty says. “I was well supported when we began the course work.”
Rafferty began working with Dare in the summer of 2013. The three-week intensive course jump-started his implementation of the new curriculum in the fall. It worked so well he continued for another year.
Integration is the key
Before the STEM education course, Rafferty taught single-activity based engineering that didn’t necessarily combine mathematics, science, and technology. That has changed.
“It isn’t STEM if you’re not integrating your science and math into solving the problem,” Rafferty says. “As a result, the activities I do now take much longer.”
The time is well spent because the projects apply all aspects of STEM. Rafferty is able to give students concrete examples of how to use math and science in everyday problem solving.
During his first year in the program, Rafferty’s students designed a solar oven using the new curriculum. This year, they will design a watercraft intended for the National Guard to save flood victims in a real-world scenario. To complete the problem, students will have to understand volume, force, and buoyancy in order to calculate how many passengers the boat will hold.
“The difference this new approach made was night and day,” Rafferty says. “The kids are a hundred percent engaged and they’re excited to come into class to get going on it.”
An unexpected result is the sense of community that the new way of teaching created within the classroom. One of the biggest challenges in middle school, Rafferty knows, is helping kids get along. The teams implemented in the classroom became a valuable tool to teach kids about working together.
“The STEM education program is the best professional development I’ve ever done,” he says. “It was different from anything I’ve been a part of.”
The modified curriculum created by Rafferty and his cohort will be posted for national access, giving other K-12 teachers the opportunity to begin integrating their classrooms, as well.
“The program has broad impacts,” says Dare. “These teachers are at the forefront of STEM education and how science education is changing.”
In our back yard
Dare is a doctoral student in STEM education at the University of Minnesota. The program that changed everything for Rafferty and generated a curriculum for peers across the country was implemented at the STEM Education Center with an $8 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
A key factor in winning the grant was a partnership of the STEM Education Center with Maplewood-based 3M and east metro school districts. A few years before the NSF grant, 3M STEM Education Fellowships enabled the University to attract talent like Dare’s and put it to work in 3M’s back yard.
3M was already concerned about K–12 math and science education when engineering was added to Minnesota’s state science standards in 2009. The new mandate from the Department of Education created a need for schools to learn more about engineering and how to best integrate it into their curricula.
As a company that relies on strong talent in the STEM fields, 3M reached out to the North St. Paul–Oakdale–Maplewood school district, ISD 622. They purchased kits to help teachers prepare to teach the new standards.
3M has also enjoyed a strong relationship with the University, hiring thousands of U grads since the company’s founding in 1902. So when the U’s STEM Education Center was created in 2010 to train K–12 teachers and foster students’ interest and competencies in STEM fields, the manager of education giving at 3M immediately recognized the potential.
Making an impact
The STEM Education Center was created in 2010 to improve science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education through interdisciplinary research in learning and cognition, STEM integration, instructor development, and evaluation and assessment. Learn more.
“Creating the partnership and buying those kits was great,” says Sharon Burrell, curriculum coordinator for ISD 622. “What made the partnership really powerful was the University.”
3M worked with the College of Education and Human Development to establish 3M STEM Fellowships that would have an immediate impact: supporting top national talent from the STEM Education Center, and putting those STEM educators to work in local school districts to implement the new engineering standards. The partnership aimed to strengthen schools, the U’s teacher preparation programs, and 3M’s future work force. It would also advance research about what really works in STEM education.
“Having that excellence in our own back yard will have unlimited outcomes,” says Meredith Crosby, director of 3Mgives Strategic Initiatives.
The partnership started with two 3M STEM Education Fellowships in the first year, focused on middle school teaching and learning. The next year the program expanded to four, then six fellows per year, allowing support at the elementary level as well. Since 2011, eleven doctoral students supported by 3M STEM Education Fellowships have served five school districts in St. Paul and the east metro area of the Twin Cities.
In St. Paul Public Schools, a fellow has collected data on what’s happening in classrooms and what teachers are doing.
“Having a fellow has allowed us to get a district-wide picture of our strengths and weaknesses,” says Marty Davis, supervisor for preK–12 science in St. Paul Public Schools. “It’s allowing us to support and advance our teachers who are really superstars. And it helps us identify areas where additional resources may be needed.”
Micah Stohlmann and J McClelland were the first two 3M STEM Education Fellows. They contributed to improvements in a new engineering curriculum then being adopted by schools across the nation.
A model for STEM education
The three-way partnership behind the 3M STEM Education Fellowships is a model that can be adapted in other communities where a school district and a local business team up to access the resources of the University STEM Education Center. To explore options for your community, contact STEM Education Center liaison Jane Townsend at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-624-3427.
Stohlmann worked with Oltman Middle School in St. Paul Park to support teachers who were using the new curriculum. He and McClelland analyzed it, assisted in classrooms, developed supplemental curriculum materials, and researched and communicated best practices for STEM education integration.
They found that the new engineering curriculum was lacking in its connection to math and science education according to the Minnesota math and science standards. Then they provided valuable data that would allow the publisher to improve its curriculum.
“It highlights the difficulty in having quality integrated STEM education curricula for students that develops both their content knowledge and other important life skills,” Stohlmann says. “That means teamwork, communication, innovation, being adaptable, and the ability to synthesize and be technology savvy.”
It was the work of Stohlmann, McClelland, and the other early 3M STEM Education Fellows that proved how effective the model could be and made the center’s grant application to the NSF so strong.
Today, Stohlmann is an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, helping to train the next generation of educators. With the exceptional experience that the fellowships provide, other 3M STEM Education Fellows are sure to follow into similar positions.
“The 3M fellowships are an exciting opportunity for graduate students to be involved in meaningful school-based reform,” says professor and associate director of the center Gillian Roehrig. “It provides opportunities for publications and makes them attractive on the job market to other universities.”
Passing on the passion
3M takes pride in helping to lay the foundation for work with not only a national but a global impact. Close to home, they are encouraged by progress in STEM education they are seeing in their community.
“The best thing is seeing STEM on the agenda, top of mind in school districts,” says Crosby. But the work continues to evolve.
Improving access and equity is critical. Crosby wants to see all students, including girls and underrepresented people of color in STEM fields, get excited and engaged.
“We are a company of scientists and researchers with a passion for STEM,” Crosby explains. “3M’s focus on innovation comes from people who, during their education, found some connection in those areas. They are committed to making sure that the next generation has the same opportunity to find that connection and passion and, ultimately, to find a fulfilling career in a STEM-related field.”
Those goals coincide with the University’s commitment to diversity. And they are a perfect match for Dare. During her time as a fellow, she has seen more students thrive in science classes and engage in the learning process through classroom discussions.
“For science, that’s important,” Dare says. “You can read a textbook and do problems, but it’s when you talk about it and start to think about it critically that you get that true science understanding.”
Learn more about the 3M STEM Education Fellowships and EngrTEAMS at STEM Education Center: Current Projects.
Story by Ali Lacey and Gayla Marty | Photos by Greg Helgeson | Winter 2015