Two grants total $2.6 million for STEM education, research

In the high-stakes race to get U.S. children as interested and educated in science, technology, engineering and mathematics as their overseas peers, Tennessee Tech University will be receiving $2.6 million from the state for two, three-year projects.

The projects are designed to ramp up STEM professional development for teachers and measure the impact on teacher knowledge and practice, as well as the academic achievement of students.

Dozens of teachers of STEM subjects across the state will become students again through two Tennessee Tech projects designed to teach the teachers.   In Tennessee, K-8 science teachers are required to have only K-8 licensure and no degree or specialization in the subjects they teach. TTU's projects strive to bring those teachers together with mathematicians, scientists and engineers to increase their knowledge and improve their instructional skills.

"You need more knowledge and training in today's world to lay a solid foundation for 5 th and 6 th graders, plus teach sophisticated science concepts to 7 th and 8 th graders," said Susan Gore, TTU curriculum and instruction assistant professor and principal investigator of one grant. "If teachers don't understand the concepts, how can they teach?" she asked.

Fewer U.S. students are coming out of high school ready to major and earn degrees in STEM disciplines, leaving this country behind several others in job competition. A push is being made nationally to peak student interest in these subjects at an early age.

Both projects will pay for teachers to travel to Tennessee Tech for summer institutes and follow-up workshops. They'll return to their schools with not only knowledge, but also free classroom materials and a model curriculum.

TTU has established itself as a leader in math and science partnerships, where hundreds of teachers have learned more about teaching math and science through applied lessons. Those lessons have included making flashlights from toilet paper rolls, programming robots and hurling soccer balls — all in the name of making learning more fun and applicable to daily life.

"Our success is based on our strong partnerships across campus and with school districts," said Maggie Phelps, director of TTU's Oakley STEM Center. "We also have put in place the mechanisms to sustain the projects and to collect and analyze the tremendous amounts of teacher and student data required for quality research."

TTU engineering professor Ken Hunter and Gore will lead training programs also designed as research projects to determine the impact of additional teacher training in the classroom.

Gore's project establishes a partnership with 5 th through 8 th grade middle school and special education teachers in the Lebanon Special School District, Overton, DeKalb Warren, Putnam, Smith, White, Macon and Hamilton counties. Lebanon, Overton and DeKalb have been identified as high need due to a poverty rate above 20 percent. The project is supported by TTU's curriculum and instruction, biology, physics, earth sciences and chemistry departments, along with TTU's Oakley STEM Center.

Fifty teachers will be randomly assigned to an intervention group and 50 to a control group. In the three-year project, year one will focus on life science, year two on physical science and year three on earth/space science.

Hunter will lead a partnership involving the Oakley STEM Center and the College of Engineering, Northeast State Technical Community College, University of Tennessee at Martin and dozens of 7 th -12 th grade science, mathematics and career technical teachers. Fifteen teams of four teachers will participate in intensive summer institutes staffed by TTU, NTSCC, UTM and Vanderbilt University faculty.

"With this structure, we've established support for the project in west, middle and east Tennessee so that teachers have support close to home when they need it," said Hunter.

Hunter explained his participants will create a pre-engineering certificate program to encourage students at an early age to enjoy and understand STEM subjects so that they will be more likely to choose a STEM-related major in college.

Why are the results of these projects important? The number of bachelor's degrees awarded in engineering has dropped by almost 20 percent in the last 20 years, while the state's current engineering workforce is getting older, according to Candy Toler of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Tennessee.

Meanwhile, the number of STEM job openings in the United States is growing at a rate more than five times that of the number of American college students graduating with degrees in STEM fields, says a report by the Task force on American Innovation.

Supported by federal funds and administered by the state, the grants are two of only three funded state projects that meet the requirements from the U.S. Department of Education through the No Child Left Behind Act.

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