by Jennifer Donovan, public relations director
Some of the most pressing problems facing the world today–climate change, earthquakes and volcanoes, energy and water resources–are in a field of science most Americans haven’t studied since their middle-school earth science class. So Michigan Tech is partnering with the Grand Rapids Public Schools and other groups in Michigan, Washington, DC and Colorado to help students learn more about the earth.
The new program, called MiTEP (Michigan Teaching Excellence Program), is funded by a $4 million, five-year National Science Foundation Math Science Partnership grant. It brings university geoscience researchers and middle-school teachers together to identify ways to make earth science more exciting and meaningful to middle-school students.
In the process, the project hopes to motivate more young people to consider further education and careers in science, technology, engineering and math, fields known collectively as STEM. Educators nationwide have expressed concern about a declining interest in STEM among today’s students. STEM professionals are in high demand and are viewed as critical in our nation’s effort to maintain its leadership role in the world’s economy.
“Middle school earth science is a particularly important area because it is often the first secondary science course taken by students,” said Jacqueline Huntoon, dean of the Graduate School. The MiTEP partners believe that if students have a good experience in their middle-school course, they will be enthusiastic about taking more science in high school. Students who like science are more likely to do well in their science classes, so improving attitudes early on may have long-term benefits.
MiTEP will use an innovative approach to improving student learning by bringing together practicing scientists and Grand Rapids teachers to collaborate on improving instruction. Active partners in addition to Michigan Tech and the Grand Rapids Public Schools include the Grand Rapids Area Pre-College Engineering Program (GRAPCEP), the American Geological Institute, the National Park Service, Grand Valley State University and the Colorado School of Mines.
Sleeping Dunes National Park and Keweenaw National Historical Park will also be key players. “We recognize and want to fully utilize the power of place in teaching,” Huntoon explained.
Ann Benbow, director of education and outreach at the American Geological Institute, is excited about participating in the new program. “This new research-based program will help those in the geoscience education community to make better-informed decisions when designing earth science curricula, implementing instruction and providing professional development opportunities for teachers,” she said.
Unlike many educational fix-it projects, MiTEP researchers will work closely with the classroom teachers and school district representatives to collect information to help them identify effective ways to improve student learning and attitudes. Teachers have a real leadership role in the project. Teachers’ input is being used by the researchers to develop professional development activities that are tailored to meet the needs of the Grand Rapids schools. Curricula and teaching methods developed for the MiTEP project will be carefully evaluated to determine which are most effective in improving student learning.
“We’re talking about a fundamental and much-needed study of how to best reform science education, one that could make an enormous difference to the future of our nation,” said Huntoon.
“This project has tremendous potential because Michigan’s educational issues are typical. This project could serve as a template for improving STEM education throughout the country,” added Bill Rose, a professor of geology and lead researcher on the project.
Grand Rapids Public School science teachers are being recruited now for two weeks of intensive training in June, one week on the Michigan Tech campus and the other in Grand Rapids. The grant will cover substantial teacher stipends, travel funds, equipment and supplies and release time for professional development. Participating teachers can also earn up to 20 graduate credit hours at no cost.
“We are pleased to be part of an opportunity that allows our great teachers to strengthen their content knowledge and bolster our curriculum with real-life experiences,” said Bill Smith, science curriculum supervisor for the Grand Rapids Public Schools.