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STEM Education a Collaborative Effort at Texas State

Texas State University faculty are taking unique approaches to educating students in science,
technology, engineering and mathematics

by David Royce King
Across the United States, a broad-based educational initiative is expanding to ensure that critical jobs in science and engineering will continue to be filled in the future. At Texas State, a cross-campus group is working to advance the goals of the national effort by implementing a series of programs and unique approaches aimed specifically at Texas' need for educators and students in STEM -Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

Directors of Texas State's ongoing STEM-related programs already have collected several million dollars in grants for their efforts, which range from the teaching of a concept called "dynamic geometry" to focusing on the math and science education of students in (he state's fastest-growing demographic.

Nationally, a growing number of STEM-focused coalitions are working to overcome declining interest in the sciences among today's youth. In the last five years, the percentage of students taking the ACT who said they were interested in majoring in computer science has dropped from 4.5 percent to 2.9 percent interest in engineering has shown a similar decline. Programs designed to reverse those trends have been launched all over the country, led by institutions like Texas State, which has a strong track record in education and the sciences.

"Texas State has a longstanding tradition of quality teacher preparation,'" says Dr. Gilbert Cuevas, a professor in the Department of Mathematics in the College of Science. "Our institution builds upon this foundation to provide teacher preparation programs based on solid subject matter and pedagogical knowledge, supported by research efforts.  It is the balance among these three that make Texas State unique."

Reaching a growing group of students
Among Texas State's areas of emphasis for STEM is the preparation of English language learners for success in science and mathematics.

"Nationally, the population of ELL students is growing rapidly," says Dr. Sarah Nelson, an associate professor in the Education and Community Leadership Program in the College of Education. “This is particularly true in Texas, and Texas State is responding by becoming a resource for the latest field-based research on improving science instruction for ELLs.

“The College of Education is partnering with the College of Science and the Ingram School of Engineering in two two-year projects to ensure that public school teachers have deep science content knowledge along with strong pedagogical skills that allow them [0 create inquiry-based science classrooms," she continues. "Our approach is unique in that we focus on improving not only teachers' knowledge and skills, but also those of parents and school leaders,"

Science and Technology for English Language Learners-Achieving Results, funded through a $1 million gram from the Texas Education Agency, involves all K-8 teachers and school leaders in the San Marcos Consolidated Independent School District. Texas English Language Learners Achieving in Science, funded at $3 million by TEA, serves teachers and principals in 12 elementary and middle schools with high concentrations of English language learners and low performance in science.

"In these two efforts," says Dr. Rosalinda B. Barrera, dean of the College of Education, "we're pleased to be collaborating not only with our campus colleagues in the sciences but also with a renowned national resource for science and math education for ELLs -the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley, which has played an integra1 role in the design and implementation of our professional development institutes."

New teachers for critical shortage areas
In October 2009, Texas State received a five-year, $6 million Teacher Quality Partnership grant to pursue innovation and improvements in teacher preparation. The result is a new post-baccalaureate program model, the Teacher Residency Program-Critical Shortage Areas, a 14-month program leading to a master's degree and teacher certification in science, math or special education with focused preparation for English language learners, urban education and 21st century skills.

"We're working closely with the Austin Independent School District and other partners to redefine what it means to prepare highly effective teachers for high-need secondary schools, an exciting and much-needed opportunity," Barrera says.

Students in the program will receive extensive mentoring and a living-wage stipend during their initial year as residents, plus induction support and continued professional development in the first two years of teaching.

Mathematics for English language learners
ELL students as a group post the lowest scores on the statewide Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills exam. Since passing the TAKS is required to be promoted to the next grade and to graduate from high school, and the ELL population is growing across the stare, it is imperative to improve those scores, says Dr. Joyce Fischer, an assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics.

Developing the math and science skills of ELL students also helps more of them choose chose fields in colleges, she adds.

Some of the largest grants for STEM programs at Texas State have come through the efforts to improve math and science skills among the ELL population, including The Texas Stare University System's Mathematics for English Language Learners, known as MELL.

Additional collaboration
Texas State's decentralized approach to teacher education boos(s its STEM efforts, says Dr. Stephen Seidman, dean of the College of Science.

At Texas State, faculty members responsible for training secondary-school teachers are located in their content departments," such as mathematics, biology, chemistry and physics, Seidman says. Intensive training in the fields translates to better-prepared teachers in the schools, he adds.

The colleges of science and education are working closely on promoting STEM education, including the formation of a task force to develop new graduate programs in STEM education for practicing teachers, and an undergraduate program for teachers seeking a comprehensive science certification.

New and continuing efforts
The University also is studying the effectiveness of a concept called dynamic geometry, a new approach to what has been one of the weakest areas of mathematics education.

Data from the survey, which is being overseen by Cuevas and Dr. Zhonghong Jiang, a fellow professor in the Department of Mathematics, will be used to assess the effectiveness of dynamic geometry in keeping economically disadvantaged students at grade level in math skil1s, teaching them problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

Texas State also has received a five-year NSF Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education grant from the National Science Foundation, with additional support from the Texas Pioneer Foundation, for Project Flowing Waters, led by Dr. Julie Westerlund. The program supports doctoral students performing aquatic research and serving as "resident scientists" in San Marcos CISD classrooms each week.

Dr. Max Warshauer founded and developed Texas State's innovative Mathworks, which is designed to develop model programs and learning communities, including after-school programs and summer math camps that foster and develop students' natural abilities. Undergraduate counselors at the camps are mentored by more experienced math teachers, who themselves are being trained as teacher-leaders for their districts.

'Thanks to its longstanding commitment to both the sciences and the preparation of educators, Texas State is taking the lead in STEM efforts around the region and the state.