TTU announces science, technology learning center

Tennessee Tech University officials announced the launch of a new effort to improve teaching and learning in science, technology, engineering and math.

Faculty members, researchers and administrators representing most disciplines across the Tennessee Tech University campus joined forces recently to collaborate on ideas for improving the life-long success of their students. Their answer: improve students’ achievements in school and before they even get to college.

To accomplish that, the TTU group recognized the need for improving children’s performance in P-16 subjects related to science, technology, engineering and math. They saw the need to improve the way children learn and teachers teach those subjects.

The best way would be to develop best learning and teaching methods using research and study already happening on the TTU campus.

“Thus was born the concept of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM, Center,” said TTU President Bob Bell as he announced the kick-off of the STEM Center on the TTU campus.

The center will serve as a point of collaboration between university faculty members and public school teachers. As university faculty and students conduct research and develop improved teaching methods, the center will help them share that knowledge with area teachers, who will be able to use the center for their own research and teaching plans.

Area schools may use the center for hands-on activities based on real-world challenges such as space exploration, robotics and environmental protection.

“It becomes a true partnership,” said Bell. “Everyone will benefit. And the children, who ultimately become college students, will be better prepared and may develop a greater interest in STEM-related subjects.”

While work has already begun on the planning and development of programs, progress on the physical aspect of the center received a boost with the announcement of the first major private gift to support building the STEM Center on the TTU campus.

Stephen Rains, president and CEO of Progressive Savings Bank/Rains Agency and a 1985 TTU alumnus, provided the down payment with a major gift announced this week. The university has already received $1.3 million in federal grants to help the building project. The total cost for the STEM project is expected to be about $6 million.

The concern is one of national importance as well. Studies show a consistent decline in science education in the U.S., while other countries continue to improve. According to a Task Force on the Future of American Innovation, undergraduate science and engineering degrees within the U.S. are being awarded less frequently than in other countries, and already the U.S. share of total science and engineering doctoral degrees awarded annually is smaller than both Europe and Asia.

According to the Task Force report, the ratio of first university degrees awarded in natural sciences and engineering in the U.S. is only 5.7 degrees per 100 compared to between 8 and 13 for some European countries and 8 and 11 for some Asian countries. In 2000, the U.S. awarded about 500,000 science and engineering degrees, compared to 850,000 from Europe and 1.2 million from Asian universities.

Studies also show that student performance in technical portions of the K-12 curricula tends to be much lower than in other subjects.

“Tennessee Tech recently articulated our vision to be one of the best universities in the nation through a commitment to the life-long success of its students. With the STEM Center, we can affect the success of students long before they plan on attending college,” Bell said.

The center will allow TTU faculty from a variety of fields to collaborate and conduct research in the teaching and learning of STEM subjects. The results from that research can be shared, transferred and applied with teachers and students from pre-school through college.

Research results can be piloted in courses, workshops, class modules, presentations and exhibits in the Center. The ultimate goal is to improve the teaching of STEM subjects from pre-school through college, improve the learning of STEM subjects at all levels, improve teacher education programs in all STEM fields, and increase grant funding and support for STEM fields at all levels.

“Tennessee Tech University’s emphasis on scientific innovation and technological excellence provides the ideal home for such a center,” Bell stressed. “TTU faculty members, already deeply involved in research, community service and development, will discover rich opportunities through education research.

“Their work will then help better prepare the students they will teach. The university’s partnerships with federal, state and local agencies offer unique opportunities for collaboration. TTU’s relationship with programs like NASA and Oak Ridge National Laboratories will open avenues previously unexplored.”

A variety of TTU departments have already begun to form partnerships with regional P-12 programs for professional development and enrichment activities, including the Upper Cumberland Teachers Councils in Science and Math, College of Engineering Math Science Partnership, TTU President’s Academy on Emerging Technologies, the Upper Cumberland Middle Grades Match Partnership, and many more.

The STEM Center at TTU will provide facilities and resources specifically designed to meet the research and learning needs of STEM topics. Included in the $6 million, 26,000 square-foot building will be a lobby area with interactive displays featuring wired kiosks, a multipurpose area with catering facilities, a 250-seat tiered auditorium featuring a demonstration area, and flexible learning studio laboratories.

The university plans to complete the fund-raising campaign by December with plans to open the STEM Center in 2008.
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