SUU Engineers Utah’s Future STEM Education

Published: March 16, 2015 | Author: Jennifer Burt | Read Time: 5 minutes

Students participating in SUU STEM science programLawmakers proved an interest in supporting STEM education for the youngest and most underserved of Utah’s residents with a one-time appropriation of $280,000 in support of the Southern Utah STEM Initiative at Southern Utah University and the same for Dixie State University.

The funding will promote STEM education across southern Utah through SUU’s Center for STEM Teaching and Learning and will address the disadvantage rural communities face in STEM education. The SUU Center for STEM Teaching and Learning works with the K-16 Alliance, a partnership between SUU, Dixie State University, Southwest Applied Technology College, Dixie Applied Technology College and all Beaver, Iron, Kane, Garfield and Washington County school districts. Beyond the K-16 Alliance, SUU works with a number of other counties and consortia on its own.

“We have really tapped into all possible resources to bring STEM education in southern Utah together,” former superintendent for Iron County School District and now interim dean over SUU’s College of Education and Human Development, Jim Johnson, explained.

SUU serves all schools within the Iron County School District, including its partner STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) school, North Elementary, as well as SUCCESS Academy, a charter STEM early-college high school on SUU’s campus. SUCCESS Academy is ranked among the state’s top performing high schools in science and math.

SUU’s STEM program travels to all counties across the southern half of the state, offering in-service training for educators and classroom-based student engagement.

The SUU Center for STEM Teaching and Learning runs ongoing educator development programs and more than 25 ongoing STEM-based programs for students of all ages. Among these efforts is The Voyager, SUU’s mobile science lab, driven to schools across the state to bring the latest technologies into the classroom. Additional programming includes a broad range of opportunities for K-12 students of all ranging from science Olympiads to code camps to an animal ambassadors program, to name just a few. 

Funding, granted directly to the SUU Center for STEM Teaching and Learning, will establish Southern Utah University’s STEM Center as one of the most broadly developed models for STEM education statewide, according to SUU STEM Center founder and board member, John Taylor. Taylor explains the combination of the two elements supported by the funding—student programming and teacher training—is what makes SUU’s efforts most successful in leading the way for STEM education across the state. Through these programs teachers gain both competence and confidence regarding what they often view as difficult subject matter.

“In the research, there is a documented fear that the sciences and mathematics create in many elementary school teachers. When given the option on specialization and additional licensure, teachers often shy away from science and math. So it’s very hard to find teachers who are really strong in STEM to begin with,” Taylor explains of the problem school districts across the country are facing as the work to amp up STEM education. That problem is often amplified in rural communities, which start with a smaller base of teaching candidates.

The concern across the nation is that a generational discomfort with many STEM subjects continues to be passed on.

“Oftentimes teachers have a negative experience with a science subject or math as students themselves, based largely on the way they were taught. As teachers, they inadvertently carry those negative experiences into their own classrooms; they almost teach the way they were taught, even though it didn’t work,” Taylor explains.

Johnson adds that STEM subjects are advancing so rapidly, professional development in these areas in general lags behind and that it’s critical to get in front of the issue.

This is where SUU’s STEM program comes in, working with educators to build content pedagogy knowledge—teaching them how to teach science, math, engineering and technology specifically.

To this end, Southern Utah University has pioneered the state’s first elementary-level STEM teaching endorsement. The first cohort of the state’s STEM endorsed educators will complete their coursework this summer, and educators from across the state are eager to seek this advanced level of professional training, currently offered only at SUU. Over the summer, teachers from Southwest Educational Development Center partner schools as well as The Canyons and Jordan School Districts will pursue the new STEM endorsement.

Johnson says SUU’s STEM endorsement will now serve as the model for other Utah universities to follow suit.

“SUU and our partners in the local K-16 alliance have been driving STEM initiatives for years, but on a shoe-string budget, cobbled together from grants and other sources,” according to William Heyborne, director of the SUU Center for STEM Teaching and Learning and a biology professor at SUU. Thought this funding will provides one-time resources for STEM programming in southern Utah, SUU will have the opportunity to demonstrate success from this year’s appropriation to justify ongoing support. Ongoing support will bring a heightened level of sustainability to SUU STEM efforts, given that, according to Taylor, nearly 90 percent of the current STEM programming is voluntary outreach by University professors, local schoolteachers and community members.

“Come next fall, you will see a renewed emphasis on STEM teaching and learning within the walls of local K-12 schools, and thanks to the state’s funding, SUU will be at the heart of that,” Heyborne stated. “We will provide both pedagogical and content area expertise to students and teachers throughout southern Utah. Thousands of lives will be touched, and we will proceed down the road leading to better prepared students in the STEM disciplines.” 

The effort was championed by Representative Jon E. Stanard (R) District 62 and Senator Evan Vickers (R) District 28.

Southern Utah University’s more than 150 undergraduate and nine graduate programs across six academic colleges are fully accredited. SUU is the only university in Utah to guarantee all students will graduate with both a diploma and field experience, through internships, under - graduate research or study abroad.

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