Data regarding pathways to STEM careers indicate that a critical transition point exists between high school and college. Many students who are initially interested in STEM disciplines and could be successful in these fields either do not continue to higher education or choose non-STEM majors in college. In part, these students do not see what role they can have in STEM careers. For this reason, the STEM curriculum needs to reflect its applicability to today’s big challenges and connect students to the roles that these issues have for them on a personal level.
We proposed a project that infused high school STEM curricula with cross-cutting topics related to the hot research areas that scientists are working on today. We began by focusing on sustainable energy concepts and then shifted to nanoscience and technology.
Pre-service and in-service teachers came to a large Midwestern research university for two weeks of intensive professional development in problem-based learning (PBL) pedagogy. Along with PBL training, participants also connected with researchers in the grand challenge areas of sustainable energy (in project years 1-3) and nanoscience and technology (years 4-5).
We proposed a two-tiered approach:
1. Develop a model for education that consisted of two parts:
- Initiate a professional development program that engaged pre-service and in-service high school teachers around research activities in grand challenge programs.
- Support these teachers to transform their curricula and classroom practice by incorporating concepts of the grand challenge programs.
2. Establish a systemic approach for integrating research and education activities.
Results provided a framework for creating professional development with researchers and STEM teachers that culminates with integration of grand challenge concepts and education curricula.
Using developmental evaluation over a multi-year process, core practices for an effective program began emerging:
- Researchers must identify the basic scientific concepts their work entails. For example, biofuels researchers work with the energy and carbon cycles; nanotechnology researchers must thoroughly understand size-dependent properties, forces, self-assembly, size and scale, and surface area-to-volume ratio.
- Once identified, these concepts must be mapped to teachers’ state teaching standards and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), making them relevant for teachers.
- Professional development must be planned for researchers to help them share their research at an appropriate level for use by high school teachers in their classrooms.
- Professional development must be planned for teachers to help them integrate the research content into their teaching and learning standards in meaningful ways.
- The professional development for teachers must include illustrative activities that demonstrate scientific concepts and be mapped to state and NGSS teaching standards.
The iterative and rapid feedback processes of developmental evaluation allowed for evolution of the program. Feedback from data provided impetus for change, but debriefing sessions provided insight to the program and to core practices. To evaluate the core practices found in the biofuels topic from years 1-3, we used a dissimilar topic, nanotechnology, in years 4-5. We saw a greater integration of research and education activities in teachers’ curricula as the core practices became more fully developed through iterative repetition even with a new topic. The core practices remained true regardless of topic, and practitioners became better at delivery with more repetitions in years 4 and 5.