BY ANDY STEINER | PHOTOS BY SHER STONEMAN
As the United States clamors for professionals with strong backgrounds in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, St. Kate’s is creating a comprehensive STEM initiative that gives students the skills to succeed in today’s high-tech world.
A group of environmental scientists has gathered for an important meeting. After using augers to take a variety of soil samples near Jeffers Pond Elementary in Prior Lake over a period of five weeks, this scientific team is comparing the data they’ve gathered about water levels, nitrates and soil horizons to data gathered in the same area last year.
They’re preparing a report summarizing their research, information they plan to submit to the GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment) program, a worldwide scientific education initiative. Because their data will be shared with researchers around the world, this group wants to ensure that the measurements they report are accurate.
“We’ve been working hard on this,” says one of the scientists, brushing his brown hair out of his eyes. He glances at his co-researchers. “We have to get it right.”
The team’s mood is somber and serious as they agree on their final measurements. The day’s work finally completed, their mood shifts: As they gather their equipment, the scientists loll on the floor, absent-mindedly leaning into one another. It’s almost time for lunch and this hard-working group is getting hungry. It only makes sense: They are in the fifth grade.
These Jeffers Pond Elementary students have been working on an innovative five-week environmental science project known as EcoSTARS. The project, which involves science lessons designed and led by St. Catherine University education majors in partnership with classroom teachers, is part of a bold University-wide initiative to boost expertise, experience and enthusiasm for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) both inside and outside the institution.
The EcoSTARS program, now in its fifth year and recently expanded to include seven metro-area elementary schools, is a prime example of St. Kate’s STEM initiative in action.
The brown-haired scientist probably doesn’t even know what an initiative is. But he does know what he likes. Shoving a notebook into his desk, he sums up his team’s work: “It’s really cool and fun,” he smiles. “I think I want to do this kind of stuff when I grow up.”
That’s exactly the reaction EcoSTARS organizers like to hear — from boys and, especially, from girls, who are particularly at risk of losing interest in math and science in the elementary grades.
The program was established thanks to a grant from the Jeffers Foundation and further support from the H. B. Fuller and Xcel foundations. It was designed to help elementary educators develop new techniques to teach science and integrate environmental education across the curriculum — equipping them with new and engaging methods of instruction to help young students understand the important role that science plays in their lives.
As science, technology, engineering and mathematics become central to the international economy, programs like EcoSTARS are needed more than ever, says Lori Maxfield, STEM minor coordinator and associate professor of education.
“Sometimes, without meaning to, we knock the passion for
science out of kids,” she explains. “We need to make science
relevant, interesting, in tune with what’s happening in the world
today. If we as adults don’t know how to harness that passion in
our kids, we’ll lose it. And too much is depending on our success
“With EcoSTARS, we’re trying to really draw kids back in to show them that science is for them — and we’re trying to show teachers that teaching science doesn’t have to be scary.”
THE TIME IS NOW
Research shows that the United States is falling behind other developed nations in the number of people it educates in STEM fields, areas considered core knowledge in the highly technological society we now inhabit.
“To meet the demands of the future workforce, we as a nation need to create more graduates who are proficient in STEM-based skills,” says Tony Murphy, associate dean of education. “The United States is already falling behind other nations in this effort, and if we don’t pay attention, our country may never be able to catch up.” St. Kate’s — with its demonstrated expertise in training educators — is uniquely positioned to step into the void.
For nearly a decade, national leaders have been calling for more emphasis on teaching scientific and technological skills. Last fall, President Barack Obama announced an “Educate to Innovate” campaign aimed at motivating and inspiring young people to excel in science and math.
“Reaffirming and strengthening America’s role as the world’s engine of scientific discovery and technological innovation is essential to meeting the challenges of this century,” Obama said. “That’s why I am committed to making the improvement of STEM education over the next decade a national priority.”
To meet such goals, educators need special help. And since about 84 percent of elementary teachers in this country are women — who may themselves have avoided math and science in school — special attention needs to be paid to keeping girls interested in STEM. Otherwise, Murphy says, we risk raising another generation of intimidated teachers who are faced with the daunting task of educating tomorrow’s work-force about science and math.
St. Catherine University has boldly responded to this crisis on a number of fronts. Faculty have developed an innovative STEM minor and certificate program designed to help students with a variety of academic interests build and deepen their understanding of these key fields. St. Kate’s is the only elementary education department in the nation that requires a STEM certificate for graduation.
With a goal of creating more STEM-savvy graduates, faculty in St. Catherine’s education department have teamed with science and technology faculty to create compelling, advanced-level coursework that explains key concepts for non-STEM majors.
The University also is creating and sponsoring innovative curricula like EcoSTARS designed to bolster children’s — and teachers’ — confidence in and enthusiasm for science and technology. The University is starting to receive national and even international recognition for its model of STEM education, which may soon be put to use in other settings around the country.
These efforts will have impact far beyond campus, as STEM-ready graduates head off into the world prepared to lead — and to educate future leaders. St. Catherine’s interest in boosting STEM education is about creating possibility for everyone, opening new worlds for the scholars of tomorrow.
"We have some brilliant, creative, innovative people here who have consistently been ahead of the curve on this effort, identifying the needs and developing new programs in anticipation of the demand," says Senior Vice President Colleen Hegranes. "Through our STEM initiatives, St. Catherine University is providing a service in harmony with our social justice model."
If American educators want to produce more engineers, mathematicians and scientists, they have to start early, says Murphy. In the early elementary years, most children enjoy science, but research has shown that as middle school looms, many students — and many girls — lose interest.
"There has been a lot of emphasis put on the K–12 level in the last five years," Murphy explains. "We lose a lot of kids by the fourth grade, so we have to start where the pipeline is the widest. If we hook a bunch of kids early and keep them interested as they grow older, by the time they are ready for high school and college, a healthy percentage of kids will still feel confident enough to pursue STEM degrees."
EcoSTARS is one way to get young students interested in science. Designed to complement Minnesota’s science education requirements, the program is a unique opportunity for elementary education majors to design environmental science curricula and work with students under the supervision of a classroom teacher and a University faculty member. St. Kate’s elementary education majors now are required to complete the five-week program before earning their degree.
Elementary education majors must also complete a STEM certificate comprising three specially designed courses: "Environmental Biology," "Chemistry of Life" and "Engineering in Your World."
Before teaching the weekly EcoSTARS class, St. Kate’s education students prepare lesson plans that are then approved by education faculty. Maxfield, who serves as a liaison, cheerleader and observer, accompanies them to the school.
One rainy day in late fall, a group was teaching EcoSTARS at Jeffers Pond Elementary: Senior Sarah Kottke demonstrated the correct way to use a soil auger to a group of fifth graders; senior Maria Hoffman explained water cycle vocabulary to third graders; and in a first-grade classroom, senior Liz Schoeing helped the students identify different cloud types on an interactive whiteboard.
The EcoSTARS experience has been positive for LeAnn Weikle, a first-grade teacher at Jeffers Pond. "A lot of elementary teachers are intimidated by math and science," she says. "Having the St. Kate’s students come in with their knowledge and enthusiasm is catching for everyone. As teachers, we’ve definitely gained from it, and the kids just soak everything up. They love it."
"Many teachers are afraid of teaching science," Murphy says. "They are terrified of teaching engineering. Our overall goal is to create confident, competent elementary educators. Programs like EcoSTARS help us get there."
Emma Tressler ’09 majored in education and hopes to teach science to elementary students. She wants to inspire her pupils to pursue STEM careers and is confident she’s got the tools to succeed. "After taking the STEM courses and completing the EcoSTARS experience, we’re not scared to teach math and science anymore," says Tressler, who earned a STEM minor. "We’ve read science textbooks. We understand how to learn and teach science."
A MAJOR MINOR
Pang Moua ’09 never liked science. "I can’t remember a single time in my elementary, junior high or high school years where science was my favorite subject," says the education alumna with a laugh. "I did OK at it in elementary school, but as I got older and the class sizes got bigger and the teachers busier, it was downhill from there."
As she was finishing her degree at St. Kate’s, the hard-working Minnesota native decided to face her fears. "I needed to earn more credits to graduate, and my advisor suggested I complete a minor ," Moua recalls. "She told me about the new STEM minor program. My first response was, ‘No way,’ because it was science. But then we talked about how it would make me more competitive in the teaching market. I decided to give it a try."
The team-teaching approach made the five courses required for the minor feel less intimidating. "It also helped that there were other education majors in the classes," Moua says. "It was different than general chemistry, where the other students were all nursing majors. I felt like I could obtain my goal to complete the class — and understand what I learned."
St. Kate’s began launching the five-course STEM minor several years ago and produced its first graduates in 2009. "This program is really unique," Maxfield says. "We feel confident that we are one of the only institutions in the country that offers a STEM minor for non-STEM majors."
Even though they are geared to non-science majors, the STEM courses are not "dumbed down," insists Maxfield. "These are real college-level science courses. Because they were developed with the non-major in mind, they are taught in a more accessible way."
Since graduating last year, Moua says her STEM minor has helped her land a prime position as a Title I teacher at Little Canada Elementary in suburban St. Paul. The job market for teachers is tighter than it has been in years, and being able to say that she has a strong science background helped Moua get ahead of the competition.
The STEM minor transformed her in ways she never thought possible. "After completing the minor, I had a complete change of heart," Moua says. "Now I can honestly say I love science, and I think that attitude will rub off on my students."
BUILDING OUR FUTURE
All teachers — even the most experienced ones — understand how hard it can be to get squirrelly kids to settle down and pay attention. Laura Angyal, a third- and fourth-grade teacher at Crossroads Elementary in St. Paul, has a classroom full of kids just like that. "This is a group that has a hard time engaging," she says. "They are sweet, but they are very impulsive, and sometimes getting them to focus can be pretty difficult."
But one fall day, when St. Catherine graduate education student Owen Ziols arrived to teach his weekly EcoSTARS lesson, the group seemed transformed. The students completed an assignment on the water cycle, listening intently and throwing out answers as Ziols quizzed them with a memory game he’d invented.
The EcoSTARS program expanded last fall to two urban schools: Crossroads Elementary in St. Paul and Northrop Urban Environmental Learning Center in Minneapolis. This is Angyal’s first experience with the program.
"My students have been so intrigued and engaged," she says. "The program brought scientific concepts to life for them, and it helped me realize that I needed to rethink the way I’d been teaching these topics."
She glances at a cluster of girls engaged in a healthy debate about the physical characteristics of macro-invertebrates. Perhaps one or two will go on to further study in a STEM field, Angyal muses, nodding proudly when the junior scientists help one another decode a thorny quiz question.
"Results like these are just incredible," she says. "These kids are the real future of this country. If we can get them fired up about science and eager to learn more, it can only make things better for everyone."
Andy Steiner is a freelance journalist and the managing editor of SCAN.