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2012 News | College of Education

New SMTC director goal: Expanding interest, innovative programming in science & math

Developing and supporting innovative educational programs that engage teachers and students in ways that stimulate interest and deepen learning is a primary goal of the new director of the University of Wyoming Science and Mathematics Teaching Center (SMTC).

Jackie Leonard brings decades of experience – and success stories – as a classroom teacher, faculty mentor, and educator of teachers to her new role at the SMTC. She will draw upon all of those experiences as she oversees the SMTC’s many professional development workshops for Wyoming teachers, supports graduate programs in mathematics and science education, initiates and facilitates regional research initiatives involving UW faculty, and explores creating a mathematics and science-focused social network (“Hooked on STEM”) connecting school children in Wyoming and Colorado.

At the foundation of it all is a vision of the University of Wyoming and the SMTC as a recognized leader in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. That potential is part of what drew her to UW and Laramie.

“This institution is moving towards being a regional and a national player,” Leonard says. “The people who are here, coming from across the country, are phenomenal.”

Leonard’s journey began in a classroom. Her transformation – and her vision – began with an innovative mathematics education program she discovered while teaching kindergarten in a Dallas-area school. That program, Project SEED, introduced her to innovative ways to engage children in mathematics concepts. The excitement and creative immersion in everyday mathematics resonated for Leonard. “I was so amazed at the articulation of these students – how they could explain their reasoning and thinking, how they were doing generalizations of algebraic formulas – that I wanted to know how to do this,” she recalls.

Leonard completed training to teach in the Dallas Project SEED program and later built upon that training to transform her teaching. She quickly began to witness the transformative potential of students engaged in active, experiential learning. Students went beyond the minimum requirements in her classroom. They relished the opportunity to engage in project-based learning – creating houses using art, geometry and related skills - in and out of class. They brought their own materials from home to enhance the appearance of their houses, to make it as beautiful as possible. They owned their projects. Parents, grandparents, siblings and other teachers joined in, as they heard enthusiastic reports from students. Before long, Jackie added faculty trainer and mentor to her professional toolbox, teaching and coaching others on how to develop unique math-focused projects.

“I’d never worked with adults before,” she recalls. “They came in with their newspapers and their coffee cups, so used to tuning out. I just smiled.” No one read the newspaper or sat around and drank coffee. They were too busy engaging in what they described as one of the best workshops they’d ever encountered.

That experience helped to lay the groundwork for the next phase of Leonard’s professional life and the doctoral program (University of Maryland at College Park, PhD in mathematics education) that would prepare her for it. As much as she enjoyed seeing individual children inspired and motivated to learn, Jackie realized the potential to extend that impact by preparing teachers in training for their own transformative classroom experiences.

Leonard extended that impact as a faculty member in colleges of education at Temple University, Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and the University of Colorado-Denver. It was from CU-Denver that she could see the next logical chapter in her professional story: directing a center like the SMTC.

It is from her Colorado experiences that Leonard also saw new opportunities for collaboration and regional distinction, particularly as she recognized the growing pool of expertise in STEM disciplines and the increasing percentage of top talent from diverse backgrounds coming together in the Rocky Mountain region. The potential for institutions in the area to collaborate in ways that position them for collective national and global leadership roles is high, she says.

Leonard envisions building upon the already strong stable of STMC-sponsored teacher professional development programs and research projects. “There certainly could be richer, deeper understandings developed around science and mathematics education,” she says.

She also envisions expanding upon early successful research and program delivery collaborations with nearby Colorado State University and University of Northern Colorado, making new connections with institutions further down the Front Range.

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