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Today’s Students...Tomorrow’s Technology Leaders
STEM Center Promotes Careers in Science, Math

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A brand new center established through research funding at UT Tyler is working to fill a great need that not only impacts today’s students, but also tomorrow’s economy.

In 2007, UT Tyler was awarded a $1.2 million federal grant to create the East Texas Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Center. STEM focuses on preparing high school students for engineering- and science-related industries through research, professional development, curriculum development and technical assistance.

“When you look at the statistics, you see a declining number of students entering the STEM fields, yet employment opportunities continue to grow. This is a trend we need to turn around,” said Dr. James Nelson, UT Tyler College of Engineering and Computer Science dean. “We are in danger of losing our technical competitive edge globally.”

Dr. Nelson and Dr. Michael Odell, UT Tyler Celia and Sam Roosth Endowed Chair, are co-principal investigators for the STEM grant project.

Dr. Odell said, “Internationally, we used to dominate math and science across the globe. Not anymore. We have to rethink how we do things. (Through STEM) we are creating a seamless educational pipeline that prepares a competitive science and engineering workforce.”

This effort is critical for our own community and for our economic future, said Dr. Nelson. “There is nothing we do today that is not affected by science and technology— from starting your car to scanning your groceries. But to satisfy our technological needs and maintain a competitive edge, we need to attract more young people in the STEM fields.”

Meeting a Need
The center is one of seven in the state established through a multimillion dollar initiative to improve instruction and performance in science- and math-related subjects. The STEM Center serves four educational regions in East and Southeast Texas.

Dr. Odell said, “For the 252 school districts that we potentially serve, the goal is to get more people interested in STEM careers.” He said there are three main objectives:

  • Align high school and college curriculum.

    “We want to focus on grades 10-14 and eventually middle school, looking at the correlation between high school courses and advanced college. How are we preparing students? Is there an overlap? A gap? Is the issue content or how we teach it? Are we all on the same page? We want to treat K-14 as a system rather than as separate entities,” Dr. Odell said.

  • Offer materials and programs that assist teachers. “In many ways, East Texas students lag behind the rest of the state because the rural districts don’t always have the courses and resources needed,” Dr. Odell said. Dr. Nelson said by providing teachers with tools and resources, they can better facilitate learning and “do the job they want to do.”

  • Create programs for youth in East Texas that keep them interested, such as camps, NASA’s summer balloon program and more. The programs are primarily focused on preparing rural students for STEM careers.

    students“The kids in the rural areas are just as talented as those in urban areas,’’ said Dr. Nelson.

    “If they are not exposed to it, they won’t have a desire to even consider going into those types of fields. We want to expose them to the fields and opportunities in junior high and prepare them with courses in high school. If it looks exciting, they will pursue an education.”

    The effort is a collaboration of area partners, including school districts, higher-education institutions, businesses and other entities to promote STEM professions in East Texas. Currently, East Texas STEM includes more than 40 partners.

    Dr. Odell said there is also an on-campus collaboration among four colleges, including Arts and Sciences, Business and Technology, Engineering and Computer Science and Education and Psychology.

    “We are working as a community,” Dr. Nelson said. “It is not higher education reforming secondary education. It is everybody across the educational community, including businesses working to provide resources and meet needs. We are recognizing that we are all tied together in this.” One of those partners is DonnaWise, K-12 science specialist with Region VII Education Service Center.

    “There is a shortage of science and math graduates,’’Wise said. “Kids perceive (science and math) to be a lot of work without a lot of payoff. They are not aware of all the opportunity. We want kids to enroll in college, but they have to get excited in high school. They can’t do that until teachers are excited, involved and trained.’’

    Partnering with the STEM Center will help in that goal.

    “So many of the schools in Region VII have only a single science teacher and maybe one or two math teachers,” she said. “Who do they talk to? Who do they get help from? Now they can evaluate their effectiveness. They can borrow and check out resources by picking up the phone.”

    Wise said the Region VII Service Center works directly with teachers to provide training that is not only academically current, but also moves them in the direction they need to be for the future. She said, “Most of the kids in high school today will have jobs that don’t even exist yet because of the changing technology.”

Hitting the Ground Running
studentDr. Odell said the collaborative effort of STEM is making progress. The center plans to offer advanced courses online for students and will launch the first online earth science course for teachers this spring. In the fall, staff and regional partners began working on a Survey of Enacted Curriculum, originally developed by the University of Wisconsin.

“We are modifying it for use in Texas to help teachers understand the alignment between tests and teaching,” Dr. Odell said. “It’s not about teaching tests, but covering the necessary topics and working with teachers on getting the curriculum aligned for better results. It’s a good tool for teachers, both in high school and college.”

Already, the center hosted an International Globe Conference and began advanced training of more than 100 teachers from across the region in different areas of math and science.

“We are trying to teach math in a different style or strategy,” Dr. John Lamb, UT Tyler math professor and recipient of the Texas Regional Collaborative grant for math, said. “We are using the “Five E” model — engage, explore concepts, explain, elaborate, evaluate.”

In October, about 30 K-12 teachers from Tyler Independent School District, Palestine ISD and private and nonprofit schools began participating in a mix of conferences, live workshops and online courses focused on teaching math.

The program will culminate in a summer institute, during which the teachers will present what they implemented throughout the year to other teachers from the region. “Our overall goal is to improve instruction,” Dr. Lamb said.

Dr. Nelson said the center will continue to impact students as a sustainable program with future grants and funding. “We will keep it going as long as we can because technology won’t stand still.

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