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Strengthening STEM Education

STEM Education
Gov. Matt Mead and Sen. Phil Nicholas speak with Adrienne Unertl, a teacher at Clark Elementary in Evanston, during the Engineering Summer Program for Teachers.

UW offers a host of professional development opportunities for science and math teachers across the state. 

By Micaela Myers

In any given year, Wyoming’s K–12 STEM teachers (for science, technology, engineering and mathematics) have numerous professional education opportunities, thanks to University of Wyoming faculty members and programs dedicated to such outreach. From classroom visits to 10-day workshops, UW personnel—and UW students—are committed to strengthening the STEM pipeline. 

“Our primary goal is to support educators and students across the state so that everyone feels confident in their STEM skills,” says Teddi Hofmann, the K–14 project coordinator for the College of Engineering and Applied Science. “We want to keep educators informed and inspired to teach STEM so that students are able to realize their potential and become lifelong learners.”

Here, discover some of UW’s successful engagement efforts with STEM teachers statewide.

Engineering Outreach

2016 marked two important firsts for the College of Engineering and Applied Science’s K–12 STEM outreach, including the first Engineers Week program and the first Engineering Summer Program for Teachers.

“Engineers Week is a statewide program that brings professional engineers into third-grade classrooms,” Hofmann says. “In 2016, we reached every corner of the state, engaged over 1,200 students, 70 classrooms and had over 50 participating professional engineers. The third-graders really enjoyed the opportunity to interact with professional engineers and ask them questions, while the professional engineers felt inspired by younger students’ enthusiasm for learning.”

Hofmann says that they are excited to engage even more participants for 2017. QEP Resources has generously offered to sponsor this year’s program, which is a partnership among the college, the Wyoming State Board of Professional Engineers, Wyoming Engineering Society and the Wyoming Department of Education.

Aimed specifically at K–12 teachers, the first Engineering Summer Program for Teachers took place this past summer, bringing 48 teachers to campus during two separate sessions, with follow-up sessions taking place in October and February.

“Participating teachers engaged in a three-day intensive workshop, where they learned how to use Arduinos in the classroom,” Hofmann says. Arduinos are open-source electronic prototyping platforms that allow users to create interactive electronic objects. “We had our college’s faculty members (and undergraduate research students) providing the content knowledge and education faculty members providing the expertise on how to effectively implement what the teachers learned into the classroom,” she says. “This program is a great example of an effective collaborative and interdisciplinary partnership.” 

Upon completion of the summer program and successful submission of implementation proposals, teachers were granted Arduino kits to use in the classroom.

“I’m a self-made convert to STEM education, thanks to my work with UW,” says Craig Heald, a teacher at Afflerbach Elementary School in Cheyenne who participated in the program. “I’m looking for the next level of instruction. My kids don’t have a ton of opportunities to learn about it, so I rely on UW for a lot of that.” 

The Engineering Summer Program for Teachers program was made possible via financial contributions from the Tier-1 Engineering Initiative, the Wyoming Department of Education, the UW Office of Research and Economic Development, and the UW Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Hofmann looks forward to engaging more teachers in professional development in the summer of 2017. In addition, the college offers a number of opportunities for K–12 students, including visits to the college for hands-on activities and a new ambassador program that sends the college’s students out for classroom visits across the state.

Initiating Science

As part of UW’s Science Initiative, UW students themselves are taking the outreach lead. The Wyoming Research Scholars Program is the undergraduate research component of the initiative. “What makes this program unique is that the students can come in and start doing research as early as their freshmen year,” says Jamie Crait, the program’s director. “They can get up and running right as they come into UW and stay within a research program for their entire college career. When they graduate, they’re seasoned scientists and are very competitive for jobs and graduate school.”

Wyoming Research Scholars Program students are required to do outreach as part of their program, and it’s something they’re eager to do. For Wyoming students, this often takes the form of visiting their past teachers and schools to share their research and hands-on activities.

“Our motivation is really to enhance scientific literacy for students who are coming into the tertiary education system,” says research scholar Logan Fairbourn, a junior microbiology major from Cheyenne. He and several other program students are planning classroom visits to Laramie and Cheyenne high schools. “We’re interested in promoting undergraduate research and engagement in various programs, and so we hoped that launching an outreach would help us excite students.”

The Science Initiative also hosted a K–16 science summit for teachers last year, and Rachel Watson, interim director of the Science Initiative’s Learning Actively Mentoring Program, is also working to network with teachers and the Wyoming Department of Education to help best meet teacher needs going forward. 

The program’s primary mission is to train UW faculty members in good teaching practices, with an emphasis on active learning as a means to effectively engage students and build positive outcomes. Eventually, the Learning Actively Mentoring Program hopes to help train future teachers in partnership with the College of Education through what will be called LAMP Scholars.

“The LAMP Scholars program would help to train pre-service teachers by having them serve as mentors and learning assistants in large active-learning classrooms in the sciences,” Watson says of the program, which is still in development.

Efforts Across Campus

In addition to the outreach efforts aided by the Tier-1 Engineering Initiative and the Science Initiative, the Science and Mathematics Teaching Center and the College of Education are involved in a number of STEM outreach activities, as are the Biodiversity Institute, School of Energy Resources, Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) and other individuals and programs across campus.

As an assistant professor in the College of Education, Andrea Burrows teaches courses on science methods, pedagogy and research, but she’s also involved in a number of outreach efforts, including the recently funded program for STEM teachers called RAMPED—Robotics, Applied Mathematics, Physics and Engineering Design. Through Burrows, the College of Education is partnering with the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Engineering and Applied Science, industry and Natrona County school district for the program, which was federally funded via a Wyoming Department of Education Math and Science Partnerships grant. The program included 10 summer days (one in Casper and nine in Laramie) followed by six days of academic-year intensive follow-up training in Casper. In all, the teachers committed to 120-plus hours of professional development. RAMPED began as a partnership with Natrona County. The first 30 teachers to complete RAMPED came from 10 Wyoming school districts, plus two from New Hampshire.

“RAMPED provides teachers professional development to enable real-world classroom context in six active-learning projects revolving around robotics, applied mathematics, physics and engineering design,” Burrows says.

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.

Dean Cyphers, a technology exploration instructor from Lander Middle School who took part in the program, says it introduced him to numerous STEM areas that were new to him. “In so doing, I now have more ideas to ‘hook’ my students. I also have several ideas on expanding and enriching the lessons I already teach, specifically in robotics, electricity, astronomy and electronics,” he says. “The program opened my eyes to many new ways of combining my STEM lessons to make them more robust and useful in real-world applications.” 

UW’s Biodiversity Institute works with teachers and Science and Mathematics Teaching Center pre-service teachers to create science lesson plans that incorporate biodiversity within the framework of the 2016 Wyoming Science Standards. The institute also hosts summer programs and welcomes K–12 students to experience UW’s Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center year-round.

“We have 800 to 1,000 students who we come in contact with every year,” says Associate Director Dorothy Tuthill.

The new Wyoming Energy Education Initiative, a partnership between the School of Energy Resources and the College of Education, is aimed at creating comprehensive, embedded learning that ensures students in Wyoming’s K–12 schools understand energy’s history and economic impact. In its early stages, the initiative is drawing from all of UW’s energy-related resources—and partners across the state—to develop a curriculum that can be widely adopted and supported over time.

“Our goal is not just to tell the story about where energy comes from and how it is liberated,” says School of Energy Resources Executive Director Mark Northam. “We hope to prepare and motivate a subset of Wyoming students to go to the university and help to create the solutions that will allow us to continue to have abundant, clean energy. This will require a much broader curricular involvement.”

In addition to sponsoring the Summer Research Apprentice Program that brings high school juniors and seniors to UW for a six-week research experience, EPSCoR provides hands-on training to K–12 STEM teachers. Via a partnership with Teton Science Schools, teachers can attend multi-day professional development workshops focused on water. Between two and four workshops are offered each year. In addition, Wind River Project Coordinator Jennifer Wellman provides technical assistance to teachers on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

“[I conduct] professional development or go into the classroom and model a lesson about some form of water science or earth science with a place-based framework in terms of the Wind River watershed and the Missouri River watershed,” Wellman says. “I’ve partnered with local organizations, such as the tribal water engineer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service to offer trainings and hands-on science activities for teachers and students, depending on what is needed.”

EPSCoR Director Brent Ewers believes STEM education outreach can improve the future workforce: “We think the best way to really make a difference in the workforce is to reach all the way down to the K–12 level. When you help educators, you get this multiplier effect. As an example, EPSCoR developed a hydrology toolbox that can go into classrooms. We give teachers training on how to use that toolbox, and they have all the tools to teach some of the important concepts in both science and math using hydrology as the example.” Teachers can tie the lesson into local issues, such as water quality and aquifers.

Providing Wyoming’s teachers with the latest tools and information not only keeps students challenged and engaged, but it also helps prepare those students for college and to meet the country’s growing need for a STEM-educated workforce.

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