Educators, engineers team up to graduate more STEM-trained teachers

student teacher with child

Call it a tale of two Fultons.

When Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College wanted to train 220 new math and science teachers for middle school and high school students, it turned to the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering – both at Arizona State University.

The education-meets-engineering collaboration was triggered by a request from Teachers College’s 23 school district partners statewide to provide more teachers who are better trained in STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math – for grades 7-12.

The effort is funded by a three-year, $11.6 million Support Effective Educators Development (SEED) grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Teachers College was awarded the grant last year in partnership with the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

Planting the SEED

A first step in the project – called Planting the SEED – unfolded last month at DiscoverE Day, part of the annual Fulton Engineering Open House, showcasing the ingenuity of engineering to more than a thousand young students. This year, ASU’s future teachers helped engineering students with popular interactive demonstrations, blending their newly acquired STEM expertise with pedagogy know-how.

At DiscoverE Day, Teachers College student Lisa Richards was helping third-graders on up to eighth-graders build straw rockets using an inquiry-based teaching method. Richards is completing her senior-year residency, Teachers College’s year-long student teaching program called iTeachAZ, at Canyon Ridge School in Dysart Unified School District.

“The kids teach themselves how to make their rockets fly by trial and error,” Richards explained. “I provide a little bit of direction, but then they discover everything else on their own. At first they asked me, ‘Where’s the fuel?’ But then they realized they needed to power their rockets with air from their lungs.”

Also assisting at the engineering expo was senior Marie Semodio, a student teacher at Chaparral Elementary School in Higley Unified School District for her iTeachAZ program. She said the education and engineering majors rotated through 10 different STEM exercises – including Light up the Dark, Rubber Band Cars, Kinetic Sculpture and Straw Rockets – during a half-day training session a week prior to DiscoverE Day.

“The STEM activities all come with complete lesson plans that I could implement tomorrow in my classroom,” Semodio said. “Since the lessons are inquiry-based, instead of me telling my students what to do, they have to try different things. And if those don’t work, they try again.

“That is definitely something I want to encourage in my classroom: 'It’s okay if you don’t succeed the first time. Do it again.'”

New standards for new learning

According to Tirupalavanam Ganesh, Fulton Engineering’s assistant dean of engineering education, the nation’s new Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) call for teaching engineering design to K-12 students to help them recognize how STEM fields impact their daily lives.

The recently finalized science standards resulted from a state-led process to benchmark science education standards in the United States with countries having high-achieving students. At ASU, Ganesh said that approach has guided the education and engineering programs in discussions about the kinds of educational experiences where young students can best learn STEM subjects.

“We want to teach youngsters the practices of engineering – what engineers do every day – instead of abstract step-by-step methods,” Ganesh said. “This takes the fear and mystery out of math and science so that later on, in high school and college, the STEM fields are familiar.

“Students are more likely to say, ‘Hey, I know what this is.’ It lays the groundwork for their possible interest in STEM careers.”

According to Sarah Beal, executive director for NEXT and SEED partner grants at Teachers College, a key objective of the Planting the Seed project is to increase the number of highly effective STEM teachers through the Teachers College-Fulton Engineering partnership. This is being accomplished through STEM-infused coursework and clinical experiences.

“When our school district partners expressed a need for well-trained math and science teachers at the middle school and high school levels, we saw that the SEED grant provided an opportunity to respond,” Beal said. “At the same time, we reached out to Fulton Engineering as the ideal source for adding rigorous, STEM-based content to our teacher preparation program.

“What we didn’t expect was the level of synergy and creativity sparked by working together toward this common goal. The Fulton colleges are true colleagues in this endeavor.”

Ready-to-go lessons

Another aspect of the project harnesses that cross-disciplinary synergy for professional development workshops designed to equip ASU’s student teachers, their mentor teachers and other iTeachAZ educators with turnkey STEM lessons in topics such as converting wind energy to electricity and understanding the urban heat island effect. Ganesh and his engineering students lead the workshops, facilitating a learning experience for the teachers around each engineering design challenge.

“I deliver the experience to participants using the 5E Learning Cycle instructional planning process – engage, explore, explain, expand and evaluate,” Ganesh explained. “Then Sarah’s team engages them in identifying those elements to create a lesson plan for the classroom.”

The takeaways for teachers include a thematic unit covering eight to 10 class periods, that also integrates reading and writing instruction around engineering and science content. Additionally, Ganesh said Fulton Engineering was able to provide several classroom kits containing materials the teacher candidates and their mentors can use to implement STEM lessons.

“We’re expanding their repertoire of STEM learning experiences they can deliver at school,” he said. “Our ultimate objective is to give their young students reasons why they’re learning what they’re learning – or they will tune out.”