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UW-Led Program Focuses on Increasing Graduation Rates in Natrona County School District

August 16, 2016
two women sitting at computers
Willow Curtis, left, CY Middle School math/science gifted program teacher, and Ruby Perry, Fort Caspar Academy fourth-grade teacher, work on a program during the recent RAMPED (robotics, applied mathematics, physics and engineering design) program at the University of Wyoming. (UW Photo)

When Natrona County School District (NCSD) leaders and teachers created a strategic plan to increase graduation rates, one area that needed attention was boosting student interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

A collaboration between NCSD leaders and University of Wyoming instructors is focused on achieving that goal.

In its first year, RAMPED (robotics, applied mathematics, physics and engineering design) had 30 teachers -- 18 from NCSD -- participating this summer on the UW campus for a 10-day schedule that included various STEM-related workshops. Ten teachers from other Wyoming school districts, and two others from New Hampshire, also participated.

RAMPED is planned as a three-year, federally funded Wyoming Department of Education Math and Science Partnership grant program, says Andrea Burrows, UW College of Education secondary education science assistant professor.

Burrows says the focus of the program is to support teachers on student achievement in STEM fields. RAMPED is a professional development program in which at least 25 teachers each year experience a 10-day, on-campus summer institute and six days of intensive follow-up training in Casper.

Benefits to NCSD

“I feel that RAMPED has benefited NCSD teachers by providing and teaching the latest and most current types of innovative technology out there. The types of technology that we were introduced to are everything about the 21st century child,” says Marisa Wesnitzer, a fine arts teacher at Casper’s Centennial Junior High School. “I think the experiences with RAMPED bring excitement and new additions to teachers’ curriculum.”

NCSD leaders created “Strategic Plan 2014-2019” that specifically targets implementing academy-based learning that fosters 21st century learning -- real-world applications -- to increase graduation rates from 75 to 85 percent.

“As NCSD desires to support graduates prepared for college/high-skills careers, RAMPED provides teachers professional development to enable six active-learning projects revolving around robotics, applied mathematics, physics and engineering design,” Burrows says. “These focus areas were specifically identified as critical components by NCSD and created specifically by the RAMPED team for NCSD.”

Dean Morgan Junior High School instructor Joseph Martinez says the program will help increase graduation rates by incorporating 21st century projects, collaborating with other teachers and incorporating STEM programs in all the district’s classrooms.

“The RAMPED opportunity gave the tools to continue down this path. The program’s leaders also are continuing the support we received during the training and extending that support to our students,” Martinez says. “Thanks to RAMPED, my students have access to college professors who are willing to put forth the effort to see our students succeed.”

Teacher participants worked directly with physicists, astronomers, mathematicians, computer scientists and computer engineers in advanced laboratories, using cutting-edge computer facilities on the UW campus.

At UW, first-week workshops include the use of raspberry pi, or a computer on a card that is similar to an Intel processor; arduinos, a computer that has inputs and outputs; and working with Baxter, a robot. The second-week workshops of RAMPED focus on space (and using data from the Sloan Digital Space Survey), virtual reality and a NetLogo, and a workshop titled “Naturally Inspired.”

The six follow-up sessions, to be held in Casper later in the academic year, feature the same content with ideas for teachers to use as classroom extensions and elaborations, Burrows says.

Mark Hileman, from Pathways Innovation Center, says teachers gained an understanding to the rigors of programming small devices such as the arduino and raspberry pi.

“I think we all understand the importance of coding, but also how to bring it down to a student level that will be applicable in the classroom,” he says. “Any time you have the application and practice of problem-solving using engaging ‘hands-on’ devices and manipulatives, students will want to learn, want to expand and to explore the next level. I think this will foster continued student involvement in school throughout their high school careers, thus leading them to the next step after graduation.”

Even the district’s grade-school students can benefit from this program, says Ruby Perry, a fourth-grade teacher at Fort Caspar Academy.

“This program brought a deeper understanding and knowledge of how to teach STEM. At the elementary level, science, technology, engineering and math can be intimidating for students and sometimes teachers,” Perry says. “This experience will help me, as a teacher, to engage students by getting them excited and by making those subjects more meaningful. It also will expose students to new ideas that can lead them to a field of their choice when they get older.”

Even though the program targeted the NCSD needs, Burrows says RAMPED’s ideals also can be used in other school districts.

“RAMPED provides the same mathematics, physics and engineering content, and instruction so that any teacher can ask and answer questions -- using research and inquiry -- and then incorporate this same technique and content into their classroom structure,” she adds.

Burrows led the RAMPED program along with UW’s Bob Kubichek, electrical and computer engineering associate professor, and session leader for arduinos; Adam Myers, physics and astronomy associate professor, and session leader for space; Suresh Muknahallipatna, electrical and computer engineering professor, and raspberry pi session leader; and Mance Hurley, NCSD Academy coach in the Pathways Innovation Center.

Other RAMPED personnel were Mike Borowczak, session leader for a “Naturally Inspired” workshop, Erebus Labs; Amy Banic, UW assistant professor of computer science, and session leader for a virtual reality workshop; UW graduate student Debbie Kretzschmar, session leader for the Baxter the robot workshop; and Tonia Dousay, UW assistant professor of professional studies.

The teachers’ work, including created lesson plans and posters, as well as session materials, is available at

For more information about RAMPED, contact Burrows at (307) 766-6735 or

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