May 18, 2010 By Russell Nichols
Three years ago, St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES connected with Clarkson University to create the St. Lawrence County STEM Partnership. With roots in a math program started in 2004, this partnership unites faculty and students from Clarkson with 200 local instructors to enhance STEM teaching and develop project-based learning models.
Funded by New York state in the No Child Left Behind program, the partnership includes one-day workshops and weeklong summer institutes. Leaders prepare students for competitions, such as MATHCOUNTS, Science Olympiad and FIRST Robotics, and also develop various STEM programs.
One such program is a roller coaster camp on Clarkson's campus, where high school students experiment with tracking devices, moving tires, remote control trucks and rockets to analyze acceleration, momentum and g-force data. They also get to ride their own coaster designs in Clarkson's programmable virtual roller coaster that spins 360 degrees and simulates wind.
"Many of our kids have never been to a college campus or been around people who are educated on that level," said Mike Montgomery, an instructional specialist with St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES. "It motivates them on what they can do and what they can become. It opens their eyes to the opportunities in STEM."
"Everywhere you looked, you saw people having fun while engaged in activities and conversations focused on STEM," said Sharon Unkart, managing director of the center. "Last year, there was a joke that the only kid who got lost was found at a college recruiting table."
With Ohio and Colorado, Massachusetts stands at the forefront of the STEM movement, boasting a wide array of partnerships between K-12 schools and universities.
The Center for STEM Education, based in Boston, started its educational outreach work in the late 1980s as an outgrowth of various research projects that developed at Northeastern University. The center focuses on partnerships with local school districts, lending support wherever possible.
For example, the GK12 project, a National Science Foundation (NSF) program supporting STEM fellowships and training for graduate students, might work with a school district seeking content assistance for science classrooms. The center secured NSF funding to connect with university academic departments and bring doctoral students to K-12 classrooms. Not only does the collaboration benefit young students, but it also helps graduate students who may want to teach get a better feel for the environment.
"Getting them into a classroom early in their careers will increase their comfort level, help them reinforce science concepts and explain it in context," said Claire Duggan, the center's director for programs and operations. "And it provides additional manpower in the school."
Citizen Schools Massachusetts, part of a national network that operates apprenticeship programs, connects students in the Boston area with STEM field experts two afternoons each week. Every spring, the organization offers a number of science apprenticeships with Wentworth University, where students come together to race solar cars. In another program with Northeastern, students learn about computer programming.
"On one hand, it attracts students because they want to learn how to create video games," said Melissa Rouette, director of civic engagement for Citizen Schools Massachusetts. "At the same time, it is so math-focused that students really have to be enhancing their math skills to be successful."
Across the country, as the push for more STEM professionals continues, partnerships between K-12 schools and colleges will continue to expand as a win-win option for both sides: Colleges and universities can have a direct influence on their future undergraduates, and the younger set can experience STEM in a real-world context.
"It inspires students to think about careers that they may have never thought of before," Rouette said. "It provides them with role models who are studying and majoring or working in these fields. Then students say, 'Maybe I want to do this when I grow up.'"
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