Race to the Top Boosts STEM in Maryland Early Grades

Three teachers scoop material from a bucket to put into a small cup.

Teachers Jennifer Mazza (bottom left), Breanne Edmonds, and Rebecca Russell explore macro invertebrates from a stream ecosystem. Photo credit: Juliann Dupuis

On a recent Tuesday evening, about a dozen elementary school teachers huddled together in a classroom at a Towson University satellite campus in Aberdeen, Maryland, north of Baltimore, debating the best ways to conserve water and how long a faucet leaking a drop at a time would take to fill a bathtub. Mathematics Professor Honi Bamberger then led the group through a series of related mathematics and science problems they could use with their students.

Bamberger also asked the teachers to reflect on an experiment from the previous week in which they poured water at different rates on piles of sand and dirt to see what would happen. While the lesson created a mess, it touched on measurement, the use of ratios and percentages, and involved scientific inquiry –all components of good STEM instruction.

Teachers Matthew Myer and Veronica Szabo identify submerged aquatic vegetation and macro invertebrates they found on a canoe trip with a Notre Dame of Maryland program to improve STEM instruction. Photo credit: Juliann Dupuis

Teachers Matthew Myer and Veronica Szabo identify what they found during a STEM instruction canoe trip. Photo credit: Juliann Dupuis

“It was a math-based lesson, but there was engineering involved in it, technology, and, of course, the science piece,” said Lori Pitcock, a fourth-grade teacher in Bel Air, Maryland, who has used the lessons she’s learned from the Towson program in her classroom.

These teachers are among more than 200 current and aspiring teachers learning to integrate lessons in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) into their elementary school classrooms. This effort is part of the State’s comprehensive strategy to make Maryland a leader in STEM education. The strategy was developed as part of the State’s successful application for a Federal grant under the Race to the Top program, which was designed to increase college and career readiness by improving instruction.

Leigh Catterton, another participant in the professional development program, teaches an integrated arts program in the Cecil County Public Schools. Catterton said that prior to the STEM class she was confident about teaching reading and social studies through art, but not science and math. Now, thanks to the training, she is creating a dance performance for second grade students that incorporates lessons in fractions and how insects move.

“The whole experience has just broadened my way of thinking and connecting, and it’s just made me a much better teacher,” she said. “It’s made me very brave.”

Maryland education officials say that if STEM lessons are more engaging when students are young, students will be more likely to succeed in these subjects in school and perhaps will enter those high-demand fields later in life.

MD STEM-Photo 1

Teachers canoe in a Baltimore County watershed where they studied water and habitat quality, tested soil pH, and conducted plant and animal identifications. Photo credit: Juliann Dupuis

The training sessions are offered through 11 Maryland colleges and universities and the Prince George’s County school district. Maryland Assistant State Superintendent Jean Satterfield said the Race to the Top grant “allowed for planning time, teamwork and the use of experts in the field. The funding and collaborative spirit really helped us to get our game to a higher level.”

Other parts of the STEM strategy include:

• Adding a technology course to graduation requirements
• Language programs in Arabic, Chinese and Spanish with a STEM focus. Read PROGRESS’ feature on Maryland’s World Languages/STEM program
• Introducing the highly regarded Project Lead the Way engineering curriculum at low-performing middle schools
• Partnering with the Maryland Business Roundtable to boost student engagement by helping students communicate with industry experts and learn about STEM jobs
• Recruiting more high school STEM teachers

The State created the Maryland STEM Innovation Network to coordinate these efforts, as well as others that were already underway. State leaders said Race to the Top gave them an opportunity to guide, support and deepen those efforts to improve teacher preparation and instruction.

As part of the focus on making STEM lessons in elementary school more engaging the State is writing the nation’s first STEM standards for elementary school teachers and certifying teachers who meet those standards. Teachers and teacher candidates participating in the training programs may qualify for that certification. The hope is it will help them get jobs and secure leadership roles in schools and possibly higher salaries, depending on how individual districts structure teacher pay.

A New Way of Teaching

Assistant Professor of Science Education Juliann Dupuis, who is helping lead the training program at Notre Dame of Maryland University, said helping teachers envision lessons that integrate STEM has been challenging. She encourages teachers to come up with real-world lessons, think outside the box and sometimes actually take a lesson outside of the classroom—to measure water quality, identify native plants and study topics such as shoreline erosion.

Lori Pitcock, the Bel Air teacher, said the practical ideas she got from her Towson instructors added up to a new way of teaching.

“It’s very different from how most teachers teach,” Pitcock said, adding that her own students and their families are taking notice of the changes in her classroom. Pitcock sat down with parents recently for back-to-school night, and she said the feedback she got was wonderful. “Parents say their kids are coming home excited to talk to them about what we’re doing in class now. I hadn’t really heard that as much before.”

Takeaways:

• Encourage teacher preparation programs to collaborate; they don’t often get the chance to learn from one another and, in this case, professors appreciated the opportunity to do so.
• Involve mathematics, science and engineering professors in boosting teachers’ knowledge of these fields.
• Allow teachers to try out lessons they can later do with their students.
• Make it possible for teachers to share their STEM lesson plans with one another; Maryland created a wiki site for this purpose.

Resources:

Maryland’s Race to the Top STEM initiatives can be found here.