STEM Centers help us understand how to:
+ Foster a sense of enthusiasm among STEM teachers that they share with students
+ Prepare teachers to provide engaging STEM instruction based on exploration and problem-solving
+ Establish exciting classroom cultures where students’ learning is driven by their passion to continuously learn more
On a bright, sunny February afternoon in 2010, outside Norfolk Elementary School, two students spotted a curious phenomenon while taking solar radiation measurements for their science class. A multi-colored halo surrounded the sun, making it look like a second, fainter sun was encircling the real one.
They ran inside to grab their classmates and their science teacher, Wade Geery. Everyone gathered and marveled at the spectacle, which only lasted 10 minutes. Then they went inside to research what they saw on the Internet. They learned that what they had seen is called a “sun halo,” sometimes known as a “sun dog”—an atmospheric phenomenon that happens during cold weather.
Dr. David Brooks, an atmospheric scientist who assisted Geery and his classes on projects for several years, provided more information on sun halos, which appear around the sun when ice crystals form in cirrus clouds and create a prism effect.
Geery describes his students’ reaction that day in terms of the “wow factor,” the excitement that every dedicated STEM teacher wants to see in students. He traces their enthusiasm for the halo—and for atmospheric science—to the school’s decision to implement the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) program. Without the program, the students might never have conducted their solar radiation research, spotted the sun halo, and experienced this learning opportunity—and Geery would probably not have had access to a scientist who could provide a professional explanation.
Geery, along with many science and math teachers at the elementary and secondary levels, have received 60 hours of GLOBE training at the Center for Math and Science Education (CMASE) at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. CMASE is part of an Arkansas network of 12 STEM Centers, all based at major universities. At each center, specialists provide science and math teachers with coaching and professional development so they can be more effective educators.
Teachers travel to STEM Centers for summer institutes or training sessions, taking advantage of the high-tech science laboratories and math manipulatives. Occasionally, STEM Center specialists also travel to classrooms to provide training.
One of the major training goals of STEM Centers is to help Arkansas students engage in laboratory experiences for at least 20 percent of their instructional time, a goal set by the state. In 2013, STEM Centers implemented the Next Generation Science Standards that Arkansas recently adopted.
“One of the biggest problems in Arkansas is that there are not enough certified and qualified math and science teachers,” says Dr. Suzanne Mitchell, executive director of the Arkansas STEM coalition, which invests in the STEM Centers. Mitchell and others believe that a strong support network of mentors can help Arkansas schools recruit and retain qualified teachers. The kind of training and mentoring the STEM centers prefer uses inquiry-based learning to provide teachers with practical ways to integrate modern technology into STEM education.
Geery says the GLOBE program has had a greater influence on his students than any other training he’s undertaken. GLOBE’s equipment and technical assistance have helped Geery lead a decade-long data collection project at Norfolk Elementary: “Today my students can use records and data collected by their older brothers and sisters when they were my students,” says Geery. They are fully invested in the data collection process, and the ownership students feel “is an invaluable tool in science instruction.”
Claudia Huse, a fifth-grade science teacher at Walker Elementary in Springdale who has also undergone CMASE training, has observed this ownership in her students as well. The training has helped her to implement activities, experiments, and projects that benefit her entire class, she says, especially English language learner (ELL) students. She cites Jennie, a “shy ELL student who at first would only speak when called on in class.” But after a new instructional approach challenged Jennie to interact with peers and contribute to group activities, she has grown more confident, “asking questions, sharing ideas, and exploring solutions without prompting.”
Since the CMASE training, Huse has observed a collective improvement among her students. Indeed, their scores in the science benchmark exams have risen sharply: while 54 percent of her students passed the state test in 2010, 69 percent passed in 2011, and 72 percent passed in 2012. The state average in 2012 was 60 percent.
CMASE Director Lynne Hehr says that teachers greatly value the summer training institutes. “I’ve had teachers leave saying, ‘I don’t even have to think about what I’m doing the first week of school! This is exactly what I need,’” she says.
If CMASE prepares and energizes teachers this well, it’s logical to assume that students will model their teachers’ passion. Claudia Huse has seen it in her students’ excitement before class: “They'll say, 'I can’t wait for Science. Do we get to work on our experiments today?'”