Message from the Director – Excellence and Literacy: Complement or Paradox?

Readers of this newsletter already know the response – complement. In fact, it makes more sense to consider these terms as points on a continuum of developing excellence and even eminence. That is exactly what we hope to accomplish with the help of a Talent Development Award from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation for Iowa STEM Excellence and Literacy (SEAL).

Philosophically, we recognize that excellence and literacy — at times –must be treated as independent goals. We must demonstrate respect for the diverse populations that require a focus on one or the other, while never losing sight of the ways in which literacy and excellence can enhance each other. If we consider literacy and excellence as points on a continuum of performance and achievement, then educational stakeholders, which would be all of us, will not be forced into making choices based upon the false assumption that literacy and excellence represent a dichotomy – especially in STEM.

The concept of a continuum of expertise struck me about a month ago when I had the opportunity to present very briefly to University of Iowa College of Education colleagues, Iowa Department of Education (DOE) officials, and local state legislators concerning the STEM excellence programs of the Belin-Blank Center. There were multiple presentations that morning and several featured the reading literacy program jointly operated by the DOE and the College of Education. During our time together, we also learned about a science writing heuristic being implemented in elementary classrooms across the state. This science writing program has the potential to improve performance across content areas. I was delighted to be part of the entire morning. I especially liked learning that science writing in elementary schools has been formalized because decades ago, in my first professional life as a science teacher, my junior high school students completed lots of writing in my science classes.  I collaborated with the language arts and social studies teachers well before interdisciplinary was in vogue. Fast forward four decades to Belin-Blank Center programming. Our STEM classes for elementary students build upon our research demonstrating that only 1 in 10 very bright students will be challenged in their elementary science class. We are implementing a STEM excellence program for middle-school students that has a proven record of improving achievement and aspirations of students. Our capstone STEM program, the Secondary Student Training Program (SSTP) program, during which high school students spend five weeks on the University of Iowa campus doing graduate level research with some of the UI’s premier researchers, is the essence of excellence. The five-week SSTP program culminates in a poster fair that epitomizes excellence in STEM literacy.

What’s next in the area of STEM excellence? The Belin-Blank Center administrative staff, along with the College of Education and the UI President’s and Provost’s offices, are working very hard to realize a Belin-Blank STEM academy. Such an academy will be an important addition to the Belin-Blank Center’s programs and, by extension, to the university and state. We are grateful that the College of Education and the University of Iowa have stepped up in support of this effort. The question that remains: will the state of Iowa step up?  Stay tuned for more about the STEM academy, the SEAL program, and other Belin-Blank Center advances in STEM.

In closing, I want to thank the Belin-Blank Center staff for their commitment to ALL of the programming that we provide. Our students, parents, and colleagues are well-served by the many dedicated staff members.

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