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Dusting off the sciences

A SELF-DESCRIBED "PSEUDO-RETIRED" professor who "collects a pension but works sixty hours a week," physicist Morton Sternheim had never in his many years of teaching walked into a workshop where the participants were all on the floor pondering "manipulatives."

But then, for Sternheim and the hundreds of other professors, schoolteachers, college students, and K-through-12 kids who've participated in a mammoth educational outreach program called STEMTEC, the unexpected has been a common denominator.

The acronym STEMTEC, so satisfyingly suggestive of both biology and invention, stands for "Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Teacher Education Collaborative." The five-year project links eight local campuses the Five Colleges and three local community colleges with seven area school districts. Based in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at UMass, it's one of fourteen similar initiatives across the country, and is funded by a $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Now in its second year, STEMTEC 's goal is more and better teachers of science and math in the elementary and secondary schools. Its strategy is to bring professors and teachers together to brainstorm ideas for making science and math instruction more challenging and fun. The idea is that if children actually enjoy, instead of just enduring, these classes, they'll learn more. (As is often noted, American students lag well behind those in other countries on standardized science and math tests.)

But that's just the beginning of the STEMTEC equation. With large numbers of veteran teachers retiring and fewer students choosing to go into teaching, Massachusetts has already begun to face a teacher shortage that is expected to get much worse within a few years. At the same time, the cadre of students beginning to be turned off by science and math in high school, when the subject matter becomes more dense and, traditionally, drier, continues to grow during the college years. Close to half of all students who start out as science and math majors switch to other fields before graduation. By improving college-level science and math courses and encouraging the students in them to consider teaching STEMTEC aims to confront both student defections and the shortage of teachers in these fields.

Thus, Sternheim, one of STEMTEC 's five principal investigators, found himself in a roomful of professionals "stretched out on carpets" discussing manipulatives, or physical teaching aids. Among them were professors and teachers from colleges and schools around the area who probably never would have met otherwise. "That's another thing that caught me by surprise," Sternheim says. "Getting to know these folks from the community colleges they're some of the best teachers around!"

Generally speaking, the K-12 teachers are the pedagogy experts at the workshops that are an essential component of STEMTEC . It's the schoolteachers, in large part, who've introduced the professors to more ground-level, interactive approaches to teaching. UMass chemistry professor Julian Tyson says he'd never so clearly defined his goals for experiments performed in class as he has since observing the schoolteachers in action. STEMTEC special projects director Susan Newton says many of the college classes she's observed look like anything but traditional lecture halls now: "Circles of people facing one another" has become more of a norm.

The professors, in turn, are often the "content experts" in this exhange, the ones with the up-to-the-date knowledge of rigorous disciplines. Both teachers and profs say the mix is beneficial. Roger Wallace `79G already a fairly legendary sixth-grade teacher at the Fort River School in Amherst, but in his own mind "more of a liberal arts-type" says STEMTEC has given him newfound confidence as a science teacher.

IN THE AFTERMATH of the workshops it's college students who provide the continuing link between professors and teachers, scientists and schoolchildren, colleges and the community. Participating college professors involve their students by including a practical teaching component in their introductory-level science and math courses something Tyson said he never imagined would be a part of Chemistry 312.

The more than 100 profs who've participated in STEMTEC so far have each found a way to get their students off-campus and teaching. UMass physics professor Kandula Sastry had his students go into area neighborhoods to help homeowners test for radon. Tyson and others have directed their classes to "the classifieds" on STEMTEC 's web site, where teachers post descriptions of collaborations they envision. Tyson's thirty-three Chem 312 students were instructed to find a teacher who was looking for help, and enlist. "They all rose to the occasion," Tyson says. "Most went two or three times."

Heather Makes `99G, whose bachelor's degree is in biology and who completed a master's in education this spring, says she pretty much always knew she wanted to teach. The chance to start a compost heap with a bunch of seventh-graders only confirmed her decision. (Never mind that the first attempt got swept up accidently by the school janitor. "So they had to build it again," shrugs Tyson.) Makes said in June that to her mind, "Being a teacher is one of the most empowering jobs there is." And yet, she added, "None of my teachers had ever impressed upon me that I should become a teacher."

That is precisely the state of affairs that STEMTEC aims to turn around. Is it working? Tyson, who early this summer was working on a report for a follow-up series of workshops, says that from his perspective, "the biggest bonus is that students enjoyed my class more." With a single exception, his students were "uniformly enthusiastic" about the teaching experience he'd incorporated into the course, and several have told him they're seriously considering becoming teachers.

Sternheim is also pleased with the impact of STEMTEC so far. Even if these early converts don't end up facing a classroom, he says, they're part of a saluatary movement toward making science and math more engaging. Besides, the pseudo-retiree recently observed, to learn biology better "surely can't do you any harm."

Mary Carey

 The Land-grant Idea in NSM

 Dean Linda Slakey affectionately refers to STEMTEC, the behemoth educational project described in the story opposite, as "The Gorilla" of outreach efforts in her college. The size, stretch, and public profile of that popular program are evoked by her zoological metaphor. But the dean notes that STEMTEC is only the most recent manifestation of cooperation between NSM and K-12 teachers and schools. (UMass Science Days, for instance, bring a thousand high school students a year to the campus.) "As society becomes more and more technological, it's more and more important that everyone learns science and everyone believes they can understand it," says Slakey.

A second fertile region of interaction between campus and society is collaboration with industry. Especially at a modern land-grant university, there's no hard-and-fast line between basic and applied research. The collaboration is not only a matter of grants bringing corporate or industrial or governmental funds onto campus. It's also a matter of alliances and consortiums which, often enough, bring outside partners in, and send students and faculty out, in exchanges of resources and expertise that benefit all parties.

This is obvious in such commercially potent areas as polymer and computer sciences. But, again, in the modern age little if any scientific inquiry is utterly remote from possible application. And that is fine with Slakey. "The relationships we cultivate are those where we have overlapping interests," she says. "The partnerships are ones that move the business partner toward applied goals at the same time that we move forward in scientific knowledge."

- Patricia Wright


 Natural Sciences and Mathematics:

astronomy / biochemistry and molecular biology / molecular and cellular biology / biology / chemistry / chemical sciences / computer science / geosciences / mathematics and statistics / neuroscience and behavior / organismic and evolutionary biology / physics / plant biology / polymer science and engineering / pre-medical and pre-dental