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STEM TQ: developing STEM-capable teachers

Michelle Harrison was scared. She has a fear of touching dead things. And now she was tasked with dissecting a pig heart. But instead of dodging the assignment, Harrison faced her fear, grabbed the scalpel and went to work.

“It was eye-opening and I’m so glad I did it,” said Harrison, a sixth-grade teacher at Lucas Crossing Elementary Complex in the Normandy Schools Collaborative. “It makes me relate to my students. When they’re afraid to talk or give a presentation, I’m going to be more understanding, and I’ll be able to share how overcoming my fear made me feel accomplished and proud.”

The dissection assignment was one of several new challenges Harrison conquered while participating in the STEM Teacher Quality Institute or STEM TQ. The program, hosted by Washington University’s Institute for School Partnership, teaches K-8 educators how to integrate STEM into all subjects and to connect STEM curriculum to the real world, student interests and future careers.

Harrison had never been hiking, nor had she ever seen a stream. She tackled those unknowns with confidence during a field trip to Castlewood State Park where she trudged through a steam to collect water samples. The experience gave her a new mindset that she’s excited to share with her students.

“When challenged with new opportunities we have to have an open mind and a positive attitude,” she said.

The field trips are a key part of STEM TQ.  They allow teachers to visit businesses and see how STEM is used in the real world. This summer, participants visited 11 businesses including MilliporeSigma, Boeing, Monsanto and Express Scripts.

STEM TQ teachers get a firsthand look at the workings of a science lab during a visit to MilliporeSigma on July 19, 2017. (Photo courtesy of MilliporeSigma)

The field experiences were the biggest revelation for Danielle Zuroweste, a fifth-grade teacher at Hudson Elementary in the Webster Groves School District.

“A lot of times we get boxed into, ‘This is the field trip we’ve always done and this is how we’ve always done it,’ and seeing how many other options are out there that you wouldn’t normally think about was great,’” Zuroweste said.

She said visiting the various companies around town reinforced the importance of STEM in education today.

“We tell our students that we’re getting them ready for the real world, but in the educational system we are not really in the real world. It’s nice to hear from all of these organizations what we’re really preparing our students for,” she said.

In addition to the field trips, the teachers participate in daylong sessions that include hands-on learning during classroom-style presentations and investigations.

Jen Pupillo, a fourth-grade teacher at Avery Elementary in the Webster Groves School District, appreciated the opportunity to explore classroom technologies like Makey Makeys, a popular invention kit that transforms everyday objects like bananas and Play-Doh into touchpads that connect to computer programs.

“We have them in our school, but I’ve been a little afraid to implement them because I don’t have the background knowledge. After experiencing and playing with them I now feel more comfortable giving them to my students,” she said.

Throughout the school year, the teachers will meet monthly to discuss progress. They’ll also receive additional training during three professional development days and six after-school development sessions.

Pupillo welcomes the ongoing support. It takes time to change practice.

“Professional development is wasted when you don’t have the follow-up,” she notes. “December comes and you’re bogged down with things and you lose sight of all this learning. I think it’s nice they are following up with everybody almost monthly.”

STEM TQ participants Brett Kalmes (left) and Rubina McCadney try to find ways to improve a PEZ dispenser.

Coming into STEM TQ, sixth-grade science teacher Rubina McCadney didn’t know what to expect. She thought it might be a lot of sitting and note taking. But the reality was “beyond awesome,” she said.

“I do a lot of PD, but nothing like this. It has been really involved and hands-on inquiry based learning,” said McCadney, a teacher at Brittany Woods Middle School in the School District of University City. “I’m excited and motivated. Just in awe of everything that I’ve done.”

During the institute, she learned the importance of creating opportunities for students to see themselves in STEM careers. This is vital because many corporations are looking to fill jobs of the future with highly skilled, diverse applicants.

Now in her second year as a STEM TQ facilitator, Sherita Love says she’s grateful to be a part of something that is so transformative for educators.

“It’s not often that educators get to go to a space for PD that is not about the kids but it’s about their learning and mindset.”

She says teachers leave the institute reinvigorated with solid ideas, pathways and perspectives for student learning. Ultimately, they’ll be the STEM leaders in their respective districts and help connect STEM content to the real world, to STEM careers, and to student culture and student interest.

The 2017 STEM TQ includes more than 140 educators. This year’s participating school districts include East-St. Louis, Ferguson-Florissant, Fox C-6, Hillsboro, Jennings, Lindbergh, Mehlville, Normandy, St. Charles, St. Louis, University City, Webster Groves and Wentzville. Participating charter schools are Confluence Academy, Premier Charter and St. Louis Language Immersion.

STEM TQ is supported by STEMpact, a unique collaboration of St. Louis’ leading employers, school districts and Washington University. Its members believe the best way to develop STEM-capable students is to develop STEM-capable teachers.

July 2017 | by, Myra Lopez

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