Furthering STEM Education

Recently, we sat down with the Belin-Blank Center’s STEM Initiative Team to talk about their vision for the future of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) at the Center, in Iowa, and beyond. The team is made up of Kate Degner, Administrator for IOAPA and SSTP; Leslie Flynn, Clinical Assistant Professor, Science Education, and Administrator for STEM Initiatives, Belin-Blank Center; and Lori Ihrig, Administrator for Summer Program Faculty and Commuter Programs.

Can you talk a little bit about your background in STEM?

Kate: I began my teaching career in 2003 in Lone Tree, Iowa. I was the only regular education 9-12 mathematics teacher in the building, meaning I taught every mathematics course offered from Consumer Mathematics to Pre-Calculus. During the summer of 2005, I was invited to be part of a 6-person writing team for the University of Chicago Mathematics Project 3rd edition Algebra textbook. Shortly after completing that project I began teaching upper-level mathematics courses (AP Statistics, Trigonometry, Pre-Calculus, and Discrete Mathematics) in Williamsburg. During that time I also went back to school and earned my M.A. in Mathematics. I’ve also had experience teaching concurrent credit classes, as well as night classes at a community college. During the last few years I also taught Calc I and II at the high school and college levels. Last year I graduated from the University of Iowa with my PhD in Curriculum and Supervision, with an emphasis on Mathematics Education and Educational Leadership.

Leslie: I have worked in STEM education for 25 years as a high school and college science and mathematics instructor, school administrator, professional development director, and professor in our STEM K-12 licensure programs. I became interested in STEM as a 4th grader engaged in specialized courses in STEM. I was fortunate to have programs where I could attend college courses and STEM competitions while still participating in school athletics and general education courses. My exceptional STEM female teachers opened my mind to the idea that girls can excel in STEM and they provided me with the skills and confidence to pursue college degrees in Chemistry.

Lori: I graduated with a B.S. in Science Education in 1999 from the University of Iowa and worked as a grades 7-12 science teacher for the Williamsburg Community School District. In Williamsburg, we participated in Iowa Excellence through a partnership with the Belin-Blank Center, and I began teaching an AP biology class. During this time period I also worked with the Center, teaching for the Junior Scholars Insitute (JSI) and WINGS, and earned my MS in Science Education from the University of Iowa. In 2007, I began working at ACT writing science curriculum and facilitating science teacher professional development for Quality Core, a project that was a partnership between ACT, the Gates Foundation, and the National Governors Association. In 2010, I began working on my doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction at Iowa State University with an emphasis in Science Education. My doctoral emphasis is on secondary science teacher education and the implementation of reforms-based science instruction by novice science teachers.

What does your involvement in the STEM Initiative Team mean to you professionally, and what are you most excited to work on as part of the team?

Lori: Being a part of the STEM Initiative Team means that I am fortunate enough to work with a group of bright, highly motivated, and innovative people. People who are committed to working on some of the difficult problems and exciting opportunities in STEM education in ways that have the potential to be transformative for STEM educators and their students.

Kate: During the time I was in the classroom, I really enjoyed working with my colleagues in the science department. I always felt like the relationships I had with those teachers really complemented what I was able to do in the classroom with my students. The science teachers I worked with always had a lot to teach me about inquiry-based learning. I was also excited to be able to help enrich what was going on in their science classrooms through the use of upper level mathematics and introductory level statistics. Being part of the STEM Initiative Team means that I’ll have the chance to explore more of those important connections between mathematics and science. I’m also excited to be able to be the “M” in STEM. Sometimes I think STEM becomes STEm.

Leslie: The opportunity to collaboratively work with energetic and talented colleagues at the Belin-Blank Center to improve the opportunities for students and teachers to excel in STEM is a highlight in my career.

Leslie, one of the big projects you’ve been working on lately is a STEM entrepreneurship program. What is this program, and how does it help to further STEM education?

Leslie: As part of the Governor’s Iowa STEM Initiative, the University of Iowa Colleges of Education and Business partnered on a STEM Entrepreneurship Institute for K-12 Teachers The collaborative project, funded by a grant from the governor’s office, kicked-off August 5-8, 2014 with a meeting for teachers who will serve as leaders across the state in envisioning and implementing STEM entrepreneurship curricula. Why tie STEM and Entrepreneurship? Although some students may not have an innate interest in STEM or plan to pursue degrees in a STEM field, many of them will be interested in areas of business and in the entrepreneurial spirit of creativity, tenacity, intuition, and persuasive communication skills. Attending to these interests and competencies may increase students’ desire to engage and excel in their STEM classrooms. This innovative Institute links two of UI’s strongest educational programs to address the important priority of both the University and the Governors STEM initiative; namely, to link the transformation of K-12 STEM education to economic development for the State of Iowa.

What changes do you anticipate making to your respective programs?

Kate: The Secondary Student Training Program (SSTP) has been a great experience to be associated with! I’d really like to try to forge new relationships with new mentors on campus. I’m especially interested in trying to get a few young men or women into the mathematics department here. Additionally, I’m looking forward to helping our SSTP participants take their summer experience and really make it work for them by showing them how to “market” themselves and this experience for future college entrance, peer-reviewed publications, and national and international STEM competitions. I’d really like to create a strong SSTP alumni network throughout the United States and around the globe.

Lori: The Weekend Institute for Gifted Students (WINGS) and Challenge Saturdays are highly successful programs that inspire and nurture students throughout the school year, and I am looking forward to the opportunity I have been given to continue carrying on such a great tradition. In considering future changes to WINGS and Challenge Saturdays, I will be applying what we know about effective teaching and learning of gifted students, as well as listening closely to our family of Belin-Blank Center students, parents, and teachers to gather insights for continued development of the program.

Leslie: For the Junior Science and Humanities Symposia (JSHS) Program, our team will mentor STEM teachers on the key elements of research, provide content and methodology experts at University of Iowa, and provide guidelines for persuasive written and oral presentations.

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