TTU STEM Center begins operations, names Phelps as director

Operating out of a one-room office with a new coat of paint, a table, phone, fax machine and part-time secretary, Maggie Phelps has launched a mission to improve science and technology education in the Upper Cumberland region.

The Tennessee Tech University professor was recently chosen to direct the creation, development and programming of the university's new Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Center. And she's not sitting around waiting for details like a facility, equipment or even funding to get started.

In fact, she hit the ground running, taking advantage of her other roles at TTU — professor of secondary science education and director of the Rural Education & Research Consortium — to incorporate skills and techniques in teacher education and grant proposal writing.

"Dr. Phelps was the ideal choice to lead the STEM Center," said TTU President Bob Bell. "Her background in science education, her understanding of the special needs of education in rural areas, and her history of collaborating with faculty in engineering, science and technology-related fields gives her an advantage in developing the direction of this new initiative."

The STEM Center will allow TTU faculty from a variety of fields to work together and conduct research in the teaching and learning of STEM subjects. The results from that research would be shared, transferred and applied with teachers and students from pre-school through college in courses, workshops, presentations, and more in the Center.

"Ultimately, our 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," said Phelps.

The program is designed to address national and local concerns about enhancing and improving science- and technology-based education. 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. For example, the U.S. awarded about 500,000 science and engineering degrees, compared to 850,000 from Europe and 1.2 million from Asian universities in 2000 alone.

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

"Connections between TTU STEM faculty and P-12 educators and students are not a new phenomenon," said Phelps. "However, the STEM Center will provide a focal point for organizing, coordinating and expanding those activities and attracting additional STEM funding.

"The STEM Center will be a fun, interactive learning environment for P-12 and TTU students and faculty across the university."

Phelps served eight years as a science and math teacher in Tennessee and Mississippi before joining the TTU faculty. For the past several years she has worked with area schools and communities to develop and implement external funding proposals for curriculum enrichment and professional development.

She has directed several externally funded projects that involved partnerships with area schools, including the 3-year Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology program. She currently serves as facilitator for the Upper Cumberland/TTU Middle Grades Math Partnership working with the TTU Math Department.

She is also a local evaluator for the TTU College of Engineering Math and Science Partnership Institute, which brought some 50 middle- and high-school teachers from Upper Cumberland schools to campus this summer to learn how the 7-12 grade math and science curriculum relates to the field of engineering.

The STEM Center's launch was announced in April when the university kicked off a fund-raising drive to build the $6 million facility. More than $1.3 million in federal grants has already been raised, along with several major private donations. Officials hope to complete the fund-raising campaign by the end of this year with plans to open the Center in 2008. It is scheduled to be located at the corner of 7th Ave. and Stadium Drive on the southwest corner of campus.

Until then, Phelps and the STEM Center will be operating out of the one-room office in TJ Farr Room 206.

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