Seeing STEM in Action
By Chad Osborne
When today's K-12 students are ready to enter the workforce, they will encounter professions increasingly tied to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
They will engage in critical thinking and problem solving that involves more than one field. Students will need to function and succeed in STEM-driven environments.
Keeping this in mind, what kinds of experiences and interactions do schools need to provide students in mathematics classrooms? Furthermore, what type of professional development do mathematics teachers need in order to create more STEM-focused learning environments?
For the past nine years, Radford University’s M.S. in Education: Math Education Content Area Studies program has addressed these questions through the NASA Institute for High School Mathematics.
Currently funded by a Math Science Partnership (MSP) grant from the Virginia Department of Education, the institute allows up to 25 secondary math teachers to visit and learn from education specialists and engineers at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton.
At the center, math teachers become pupils and immerse themselves in hands-on modeling and simulation learning experiences, essential components of engineering that are frequently neglected throughout secondary math instruction, according to Darryl Corey, an associate professor and the program’s coordinator.
The institute gives participants from partnering school divisions an opportunity to study for two weeks during the summer under a team of NASA scientists, engineers and educational specialists. Teachers tour various NASA facilities, attend presentations and collaborate with NASA engineers and education specialists.
“They learn how to take real NASA engineering content and turn it into lesson plans they can teach in their classrooms,” Corey said. “Before they leave NASA, they are required to develop a lesson plan they can implement into their teachings.”
It is important, Corey explained, for secondary math teachers to know how to integrate authentic real-world applications into their classrooms.
“We want students to learn math in a way that is meaningful and real for them,” he said. “The content teachers get at NASA is authentic.”
Part of the content delivered at an institute session came from an engineer who designed the parachutes for the Mars rover.
“He took some of the math he used for the Mars rover, taught it at a secondary level and showed teachers how the event of landing a rover on Mars can be used in their teaching of mathematics,” Corey explained. “This gives students some interesting and fun real-world examples of how mathematics is actually used and could potentially increase their interest in STEM.”
In addition to the NASA Institute, Radford University offers numerous courses and professional development opportunities to secondary math teachers.
The Math Education Content Area Studies program offers licensed Virginia mathematics teachers the opportunity to enroll in courses in which they can earn a master’s degree or a mathematics certificate entirely online.
Teachers seeking a master’s degree complete a 36 credit hour program, which includes 18 credit hours of math content and 18 credit hours of education, technology and research. The mathematics certificate program consists of 18 credit hours of math content.
A pillar of the program, Corey said, is that its cohorts have teachers from all over Virginia, from such large geographic regions as Hampton Roads, metro Washington, D.C. and metro Richmond to the smaller rural areas of Southwest Virginia.
“We have teachers from over 30 school districts who collaborate, learn together and offer a variety of perspectives,” Corey said.
Over the years, many of the teachers have studied together at the NASA Institute. This past summer’s NASA cohort of 25 teachers participated in the institute in July during NASA Langley’s 100-year celebration.
“The NASA Institute is a terrific opportunity for secondary math teachers to learn real-world engineering applications and turn them into mathematics lessons for their students,” Corey said.