STEMpact program equips educators to foster love of science in students

(July 23, 2015 by Rebecca Rivas, The St. Louis American. Photo by Wiley Price)

Scientists at Sigma-Aldrich, a chemical-supply company in Midtown St. Louis, turned down the lights in a classroom-size laboratory, where about 50 K-8 school teachers stood around lab tables wearing white coats.

When the scientists combined two chemicals, the mixture glowed a magical turquoise blue in the dark.

“As the kids would say, that’s tight,” said Cardellia Brand, a fifth-grade teacher in the Normandy School District.

Today (July 22), the Sigma-Aldrich team members were teaching Brand and the other teachers a few science experiments that they could do in the own classrooms.

For the fourth year, a select group of St. Louis-area and Metro East educators have been spending two weeks – July 13 to July 24 – learning how to better teach their students in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Called the STEM Teacher Quality (TQ) Institute, the teachers have been engaging in simulated space missions at the Challenger Learning Center, exploring creek habitat at Castlewood State Park and uncovering the secrets of software security with MasterCard. Express Scripts, Ameren, the Federal Reserve Bank and Microsoft have also offered activities to encourage the teachers to “STEM-itize” their curriculum. And several teachers said that the program has opened their eyes to careers that aren’t the typical doctor or scientist roles that young people often strive for.

“The goal is not just to raise test scores but to foster and grow a lifelong interest in the fields, thereby establishing today’s students as the STEM leaders of tomorrow,” said Deborah Holmes, project manager and facilitator for the institute. “And the method seems to be paying off.”

In 2014 all STEM TQ fifth and eighth grade science classrooms out-performed non-participating classrooms, according to evaluations performed by STEMpact – which is the collaborative network that organizes and funds the institute. In math, reports show STEM TQ students out-performing non-participating students by at least 22 index points.

The 2015 STEM TQ includes 165 participants, up from 106 last year, and there’s a waitlist of more than 20 educators. This year’s participating school districts include Affton, East-St. Louis, Ferguson-Florissant, Hazelwood, Hillsboro, Jennings, Kirkwood, Mehlville, Normandy, Pattonville, Rockwood, St. Charles, St. Louis Language Immersion, University City, Webster Groves, and Wenztville.

During the activity-packed two weeks, STEMpact facilitators and educators work with kindergarten to eighth grade teachers in day-long sessions that include hands-on learning during classroom-style presentations, investigations and field trips.

At Sigma-Aldrich, Tanya Jackson, a global product manager, told her story of how she landed at the company, which sells about 300,000 different products.

“The wind blew me here,” she said.

Jackson grew up in Buffalo, New York, in a family that all works service jobs, and she was the first one among her family members to earn a degree. No one in her family encouraged her to pursue science, she said.

“I wouldn’t be here without my teachers,” she said, emphasizing that they nurtured her love for science starting at elementary school. “I’d be working at the bar like the rest of my family.”

She spoke about taking seven years to earn her biology degree, and then she went on to earn her master’s degree in natural sciences. She’s had a variety of jobs, including “bench scientist” in a cancer research lab and “troubleshooter” for customers’ challenges with a company’s life science products. She said these are positions that their students potentially land in the science field – and none of them are paths that she would have carved out for herself in her youth.

This aspect of the STEMpact program particularly hit a cord with fifth-grade teacher Megan Zinch, who teaches in the Normandy School District.

“Career connections has been one of the big takeaways for me,” she said.

Zinch said she can’t wait to start introducing all the new career paths she has learned about and also modeling them in the classroom.

Catherine Mitchell, an art teacher in the University School District, said she is part of the new STEAM acronym, which adds “art” into STEM.

“It’s not a big leap,” she said, to see how the STEM areas fit into creating art.

Mitchell said she has learned so much through the program.

“I can see the implications in incorporating it in my classes and also in collaboration with other classroom teachers,” she said.

Following STEM TQ, STEMpact provides additional training during three professional development days and six after-school development sessions throughout the school year.

Read the entire story on the The St. Louis American website.