SIU gets $2.2 million to continue STEM teacher development program

Building on its past success, Southern Illinois University Carbondale will receive another round of funding for a program that helps highly qualified teachers teach STEM subjects to junior high and high school students throughout the region.

The National Science Foundation is providing the $2.2 million grant to continue its Robert Noyce Master Teacher Fellowship program at SIU. The latest grant raises to $4.5 million the amount SIU has received to help teachers more effectively present STEM courses – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – to students in Southern Illinois.

“We are building on the success of the first grant,” said Karen Renzaglia, research professor of plant biology and the principal investigator on the grant, which will fund the five-year project.

Built on success of earlier programs

Renzaglia secured the first round of NSF funding of $3.25 million for the professional development program in 2011. That initial SIU program, titled “A Community of Problem Solvers: Teachers Leading Problem-Based Learning in Southern Illinois,” built a community of more than 40 regional teachers who conducted research in the Cache River wetlands, developing skills they subsequently took to their classrooms.

“Thousands of students were impacted by that effort,” Renzaglia said.

Focus shifts with latest funding

This latest round of funding will fuel a project with a different focus, Renzaglia said, though the emphasis remains on further enhancing STEM education for regional students. The co-principal investigators include SIU experts in plant biology, zoology, teacher leadership, effective STEM pedagogy and sustainability and environmental science.

“This grant has five science contact areas that we will focus on: general sustainability, biodiversity, toxicology, climate change and energy,” Renzaglia said. “We will recruit only 15 teachers to be master teacher leaders and will draw in many other aspiring teachers (undergraduates) and in-service teachers to participate and be led by our 15 teachers.”

Teachers to be selected

Program leaders will select participating teachers based on their performance as educators, content knowledge and their commitment to enhancing STEM teaching practice through innovative and effective pedagogy. Those selected conduct summer research projects and other professional development activities throughout the project.
Teachers will come from the three states around the three regional rivers: Mississippi, Wabash and Ohio. The schools or school districts from Southern Illinois participating include Belleville Township High School West, Cairo Junior-Senior High School, Carruthers School, Norris City-Omaha-Enfield High School, Grayville Community Unit School District 1, Trico Community Unit School District 176, and Steeleville Community Unit School District 138.

Program leaders see STEM enhancement, transformation

Renzaglia said the effort is important because it is aimed at transforming STEM education in the river region so that it is based locally on environmental issues that are easily applied to solving global problems.

“Teachers and students conduct research, thereby becoming scientists. The local focus provides context for the students to learn and develops ownership by addressing problems of importance in their lives,” she said. “These experiences open up possibilities in regards to career aspirations and they develop critical thinking skills in the youth in our region.”

Participating teachers will be trained in leadership as they guide fellow teachers and administrators toward educational reform.

“It is an opportunity that changes the professional lives of teachers while drawing their students into STEM fields, which are greatly in need of skilled, highly educated professionals,” Renzaglia said.

SIU also will partner with the Carbondale Science Center to reach out and further educate the public about environmental sustainability.

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