NSF awards Rowan U major grant to improve STEM classroom diversity

NSF awards Rowan U major grant to improve STEM classroom diversity

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Kids in South Jersey schools in the near future may learn some fundamentals about gravity and specifics about calculus from people who look a little more like them thanks to a program the National Science Foundation is funding at Rowan University.

Under an anticipated $1.2 million grant through NSF’s Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program, a team headed by Dr. Trevor Smith, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy and the Department of STEAM Education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics), in July will initiate “South Jersey STEM Education Scholars: Recruiting and Supporting STEM Teachers from Underrepresented Populations.” The team comprises faculty from the College of Science & Mathematics and the College of Education in the collaborative effort.

Preparing STEM educators

At the heart of the project is attracting more individuals from underrepresented groups into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. During the first three years, the team will use $537,437 in funding to plan the project in detail and recruit students into the M.A. in STEM Education program at Rowan, providing them with one-year $30,000 scholarships. In turn, the students must commit to working for two years after graduation in a high-need school district. The M.A. in STEM Ed teacher preparation program focuses on research-based best practices for teacher candidates and centers around a yearlong residency in a high-need school.

“Our primary goal is to promote diversity among STEM teachers in South Jersey, trying to make the population of science and math teachers in particular more reflective of the student population in our region,” Smith said.

He said the population in general in the seven South Jersey counties is approximately 70 percent white, 15 percent African American, 10 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Asian and 1 percent Native American. While Rowan University and the College of Science & Mathematics reflect that breakdown, he said, Rowan’s science and math education majors do not – that group is approximately 87 percent white and 13 percent minority, which is representative of STEM teachers in the region.

Making a difference for the future

“This is important to address because there are studies that show that the impression that high school students get from their teachers is critical. If high school students see teachers who are all of similar demographics, that sends the message that only people of those demographics can go into those professions. Basically, what we have right now is sort of a reinforcing cycle that the current population of STEM teachers is overwhelmingly white and from the upper middle class,” said Smith, who earned a doctorate in physics, a Master of Science in Teaching with a concentration in physics and a Bachelor of Science in physics, all from the University of Maine.

Through the NSF-funded initiative, the team will collaborate with school districts in Millville, Vineland and Glassboro with which Rowan already has strong relationships, placing students there for student teaching assignments.

“We are building on those partnerships and relationships to get our Noyce Scholars working as teacher candidates in those districts,” said Smith, who is partnering on the initiative with Drs. Robert Wieman, Jill Perry, David Klassen and Issam Abi-El-Mona. “We also are aiming to serve districts that are more diverse.” He anticipates 25 Noyce Teachers will begin their teaching careers in high-need districts by the end of the five-year project.

Providing ongoing support

During the life of the initiative, the Rowan team will recruit and support teacher candidates from underrepresented groups and study the experiences of those candidates, gathering insight into, among other areas, factors that support and impede entry into and retention in STEM teaching for those populations and factors that contribute to their effectiveness in the classroom. The project also will offer support for Noyce Scholars, including advising and competitive grants during their clinical field experience; professional development opportunities while in school; and support for recent graduates during their first two years of teaching, including professional development and mentorship by veteran teachers.

Dr. Monika Williams Shealey, dean of the College of Education, noted, “This is one of many innovative initiatives offered by the College of Education dedicated to diversifying the teacher workforce, and it demonstrates the commitment of our college to addressing the most vexing issues facing public education” Other programs include Project Increasing Male Practitioners and Classroom Teachers (IMPACT), which is designed to prepare diverse male educators, and the Urban Teacher Residency Project, which provided high-quality teachers for high-need schools emphasizing the needs of English learners.

Added Dr. Karen Magee-Sauer, dean of the College of Science & Mathematics, “Preparing highly qualified high school science and mathematics teachers is central to the mission of the College of Science & Mathematics.” Magee-Sauer is the principal investigator on a PhysTEC Comprehensive Grant awarded to increase the number of high school physics teachers graduating from Rowan.

Joining related programs

Along with the PhysTEC grant, Rowan’s Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship Program has contributed to Rowan’s recent increase in preparing highly qualified high school science and mathematics teachers. “The success of Rowan’s WWTF grant certainly was instrumental in our success in winning this new funding,” said Perry, principal investigator for the WWTF Award and associate professor in the STEAM Department.

“This grant isn’t just an investment in our local students and schools, it’s an investment in our entire area and workforce,” said Rep. Donald Norcross. “It’s no secret that we need more STEM teachers, and it’s encouraging to see such an innovative, needed recruitment program in South Jersey. Our country must prioritize STEM education in order to build our 21st century workforce, and I am so proud that Rowan University is as the forefront of this effort.”