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Award-winning after-school programs invigorate math, science education

man helping students
February 12, 2013

A showcase open house for Club STEM will be held at the ASU Preparatory Academy in Phoenix at 10 a.m., on March 2.

Crockery shards lay on the floor, and blood spatters nearby showed that the suspect must have suffered an injury while committing the crime. Footprints and fingerprints left behind could help identify a culprit.

About 30 middle school students from all over the Valley are hot on the Case of the Smashed Cookie Jar, poring over evidence at ASU Preparatory Academy in Phoenix every Saturday morning for six weeks. A half-dozen or so ASU undergraduates and high school students, acting as mentors to the students in Club STEM, are performing a sneaky dual role: they are also the prime suspects.

The excitement is palpable as the young students identify blood types and analyze fingerprints, lip prints and footprints. They also perform chromatography on ink samples and interview the mentors to develop case files, scribbling on their clipboards to create profiles of their suspects.

While one group solves a simulated crime using forensic science techniques, another 30 students, clad in plastic aprons, safety goggles and protective gloves, are studying systems of the human body, by dissecting sheep hearts, brains, kidneys and eyes.

STEM in the Middle Project for middle school students and teachers

In the past two years, Club STEM students have designed and created their own video games, Rube Goldberg machines and 3D computer-based structures; explored high speed photography and video; and staged a competition for “Sumo robots” they had built. Students often become so engrossed in the projects that they insist on coming to the club even when they’re not feeling well.

Club STEM is an activity of the PRIME Center in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, which aims to increase student success and interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and to improve the skills and techniques of teachers in these fields. While students in grades 5-8 do projects designed and led by practicing scientists, teachers are in separate workshops, deepening their content knowledge and learning strategies for creating explorations for students that lead to greater understanding. The combined program is called STEM in the Middle.

“This program has helped me gain a better understanding of how to make math teaching, fun,” says Kristi Larson, a former grade 5th-6th grade science teacher at Sequoia Charter School who has begun teaching at ASU Prep. “Anything around you – a pencil, paper and measuring tape – can be made into a math problem.”

More than 90 students and 88 teachers from over a dozen Valley school districts participated last year, with new groups beginning each semester. Middle school teachers, most of whom do not have math or science degrees, are preparing for the new Common Core State Standards in Mathematics and the Next Generation Science Standards.

Funded by the Helios Education Foundation, Club STEM is one of two programs that led to the PRIME Center’s receiving the prestigious 2012 Outstanding Afterschool Program Award of Excellence from the Arizona Center for Afterschool Excellence, and a certificate of recognition from Arizona Governor Jan Brewer.

Prime the Pipeline Project for high school students and teachers

Also singled out in the award presentation was the PRIME Center’s program for high school students and secondary school teachers which led to higher student GPAs, completion of more advanced courses in STEM fields and greater persistence in STEM college preparatory courses. Prime the Pipeline Project (P3): Putting Knowledge to Work, funded by the National Science Foundation, ran for three years at the Polytechnic campus.

P3 used a project-driven approach in which high school students and teachers worked collaboratively as learners in “scientific villages” to solve complex problems, designed and led by ASU scientists. Industry and business leaders assisted. During the academic year, villages met on Tuesday afternoons and for two weeks in the summers.

Demand for P3 was high, with room for only about 100 students who were chosen randomly.  They drove to the Mesa campus from as far away as Superior and Payson, and their achievements were compared with a control group of non-participants for the duration of the project.

PRIME Center researchers now are compiling their results, which indicate much higher achievement by P3 students and a greater tendency to persist in STEM courses in college. They are hopeful the Pipeline Project can be replicated elsewhere, and that teachers will continue the activities in their classrooms.

“There’s a need for greater preparation for teachers of mathematics and the sciences, and the use of technologies to advance learning,” says Carole Greenes, project principal investigator and associate vice provost for STEM Education. “Teachers want more help, and are eager and excited to learn. We don’t tell them how to teach; we engage them in exciting explorations that they can take back to their students.”

Greenes encourages teachers to expect more from their students, and to allow them more time on each task: “I tell them to allow kids to struggle, but not to suffer. Students need greater time for thinking and wrestling with important ideas.”

Among the 143 teachers who participated in the high school P3 program, almost a third noted that they had changed their expectations about what their students could accomplish. They developed more comfort with technology, and they especially enjoyed learning from other teachers.

“My professional life is richer and deeper as a result of the program,” says Nancy Foote, a science teacher in the Higley Unified School District. “My lessons include real world applications, and my expectations for my students--and for myself – are higher. My students will be the real proof of the success of the program when they become the scientists, technicians, engineers and mathematicians of the future.”

PRIME Center outreach

The PRIME Center staff, including Mary Cavanagh as executive director and Shelley Tingey as projects coordinator, now are reaching out to elementary school teachers. With funding from the CK-12 Foundation, they have created open-source materials for teachers in Pre K-7, to help young students get ready for Algebra 1. The explorations include detailed tips for teachers about ways to use the program, and are available at

To encourage students, teachers and their families to engage in STEM explorations, they developed the Arizona Science Center Mathematical Adventure, a walking tour of the center’s exhibits with math problems to solve along the way.    

With the help of three undergraduate student employees, the PRIME Center also produces and distributes two four-page MATHgazines (one targeted at grades 4-8, and the other, grades 9-12),  every month during the academic year. MATHgazines with thought-provoking challenges are available, along with the Arizona Science Center Mathematical Adventure, at

This past fall, the PRIME Center began working with the Arizona Association of Teachers of Mathematics to serve their membership by producing two on-line journals each year.

The end-of-semester showcase open house for Club STEM will be held at the ASU Preparatory Academy at 7th Street and Fillmore, on March 2 at 10 a.m.  Students will talk about their project explorations. The public is invited to find out “who done it” and learn about the human body from the dissection experts.

A film documenting the Pipeline Project is available at A book detailing the Pipeline Story is forthcoming.