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STEM Outreach: SEA shows that scientists are the ultimate study aid

  • At SEA
    At SEA  Robot-building exercises are one of the most popular and most effective activities at summer academies sponsored by the STEM Education Alliance.  Photo courtesy of SEA
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Editor's note:  This is one of a series of stories from Ideation magazine on the various STEM-outreach initiatives at William & Mary, programs that reach out beyond the walls of campus to increase understanding and appreciation of the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering and math. The full series of stories is available here.

“Three, two, one …”

A rocket made out of a two-liter bottle shoots into the blue sky, a line of white smoke trailing behind. The middle-school students that comprise the launch team shield their eyes from the sun as they watch the bottle-rocket’s descent, estimating the heights it reached and thinking of ways they can make it climb even higher. Nearby, scientists and engineers—who have faced similar questions in their careers, but with much larger equipment and real-life consequences—stand ready to assist.

For the students, the scientists are the ultimate study aid, providing both guidance and a concrete example of what a career in science, technology, engineering or math might look like. For the scientists, the students are prospective colleagues and the possible future of their career fields.

The collaboration between the professionals and students is thanks to a National Defense Educational Program contract awarded to William & Mary’s STEM Education Alliance. The project pairs middle school teachers with professional engineers and scientists, creating an opportunity for them to mentor both teachers and students.

“People often wonder why a school of education is involved in STEM outreach activities. Ultimately, it always begins with education,” said Gail Hardinge, executive director of the STEM Education Alliance, or SEA. “We must expose students to careers within an appropriate educational environment if we expect them to be interested in becoming the engineers and scientists of the future.”

Since it began in 2004 as the Virginia Demonstration Project, the SEA has worked with more than 19,000 students in eight school districts and more than 100 engineers from four naval commands. Last summer, the alliance assisted in managing and evaluating four summer academies attended by 300 students and approximately 75 teachers.

Hardinge, who also is a clinical associate professor in William & Mary’s School of Education, says that unlike many other STEM-outreach programs, the goals of the alliance’s activities, which include hands-on projects like building rockets or programming Lego robots, does not rest solely in content knowledge.  

“Instead, the STEM Education Alliance is about changing attitudes towards STEM and awareness of STEM careers,” Hardinge said, adding that the alliance hopes to foster positive attitudes about STEM topics in students.

“Research has shown a connection between positive attitudes, self-efficacy and success,” said Hardinge. However, she notes that the alliance doesn’t look at grades or Standards of Learning (SOL) scores to evaluate their effectiveness in changing students’ attitudes. Instead, SEA participants look at student response to attitudinal surveys on STEM careers and enrollment in upper-level STEM courses by SEA alumni.

Hardinge noted that the alliance is currently involved in a longitudinal study, tracking alumni of the program with the hopes of better understanding what happens to its graduates once they are in college.

As for awareness, the alliance hopes to increase students’ knowledge of STEM careers. One of the things that Hardinge and her colleagues found when looking at various STEM programs throughout the country is that few programs really connect the dots for students between the activities they enjoy and the careers that correspond to them.

“Kids go to STEM summer academies and camps, and love the activities, but seldom does someone say, ‘Hi, I’m so and so, and I am a scientist or engineer and this activity you’re doing, I do in my real job,’” said Hardinge.

Therefore, the alliance now includes a career component with their initial five strands of STEM instruction that teachers and scientists focus on: inquiry based instruction, co-teaching, carefully timed explicit instruction, cooperative learning and thematic or “big idea” classroom instruction.

Teachers involved in the alliance’s program are still teaching the content that they are required to teach, including content required for the SOL tests, but the alliance shows them how to “wrap it around a real world problem,” said Hardinge.

“One of our primary goals is to provide teachers with additional tools to teach. There are interactive, engaging ways to increase a student’s content knowledge,” said Hardinge, adding that the response by teachers has been overwhelmingly positive.

“The feedback that we received from teachers was, ‘I’m finally able to be the teacher I went to school to be.” said Hardinge. “We were responding to a generation of teachers who were saying, ‘I’m teaching to a test.’”

In 2010, the SEA received a sole-source contract from the U.S. Department of Defense for a total of $2.5 million over three years.

The contract is allowing the alliance to expand its reach. SEA is now able to offer follow-up training to scientists, engineers and teachers online. In the past, staff members had to travel to schools to conduct follow-up training.

“We will provide a combination of face-to-face and distance training,” said Hardinge. “Our goal is to broaden the reach beyond the labs. For example, it’s very costly for us to conduct all follow-up trainings, and the bigger we become, the more demand there is. So, what we’re going to do is create blended learning opportunities by combining initial face-to-face sessions with follow-up distance sessions.  We’ll provide both synchronous and asynchronous training.”

Jake Joseph, the project’s assistant director, will be directing the alliance’s first pilot synchronous training this fall with the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command in Charleston, S.C. The session will be a follow-up to training the alliance conducted for the group in Charleston in July 2011.

The contract is also allowing the alliance to support a Hampton Roads Regional STEM Coalition, which will partner with local teachers, engineers and scientists. In addition, the contract is funding an expansion of the alliance’s use of the STEM Attitude and Awareness Scale, which assesses students’ knowledge of and attitudes toward science, technology, engineering and math.

“We’ve used our evaluation instrument in Virginia on over 5,000 students,” said Joseph. “We are now contracted to evaluate Charleston, South Carolina’s, STEM programs, as well as after-school STEM programs in Philadelphia.”

Hardinge said that one of the biggest challenges facing STEM education today is figuring out how to maintain consistency through tough budget times. Programs stop and start and valuable data is often lost.

“People are constantly reinventing the wheel without an adequate evaluation system in place. STEM projects often don’t build upon that which has already been evaluated, failing to ask the important question, “How can we learn from what has already been done in order to design a better program or an improved evaluation system? Innovation is important, but it is also important to build upon that which has already shown to have been successful.”