Campus & Community

Teaching Excellence, STEM to Stern

A techologically-savvy workforce is now critical to the nation's future well-being.

Studies have suggested that as much as 85 percent of U.S. economic growth may be the direct or indirect result of technological innovation, and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) occupations comprise a growing sector of the economy. Projected to create 2.4 million new jobs over the decade from 2008 to 2018, STEM fields are responsible for countless innovations in fields such as computing, aerospace, defense, telecommunications, materials, medicine and healthcare.

Stevens has long been ahead of the STEM curve. In anticipation of changing technologies, careers and workforce needs to come, the university created the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education (CIESE) more than a quarter-century ago to begin teaching K-12 teachers how to better instruct and inspire their students in STEM disciplines, with a particular focus on the intersection between science and engineering.

STEM education is now a key objective of the university's 10-year Strategic Plan "The Future. Ours to Create." And CIESE remains focused on developing teaching expertise to nurture the next generations of innovators and STEM-informed citizens.

"Widespread STEM literacy is crucial for life, work and citizenship," explains Arthur Camins, director of CIESE. "We promote improvement by developing curricula, engaging teachers in professional development and investigating teaching and learning questions through educational research."

Educating the educators

CIESE set out with a straightforward directive: to apply advances in the rapidly emerging new technologies of the time, such as mathematics software and the Internet, to address growing national demand to improve science and mathematics learning.

Envisioned and directed by Edward Friedman, an MIT-trained physicist who had previously been instrumental in Stevens' becoming the first U.S. institution to require undergraduates to purchase and use personal computers in the classroom, the Center quickly picked up steam. Beth McGrath, now chief of staff to Stevens President Nariman Farvardin, joined CIESE in 1993 and became director in 2004, serving as director and Executive Director until 2011. Under McGrath's leadership, CIESE expanded its portfolio to include the "E" (engineering) in STEM, which was largely absent from K-12 offerings at the time.

The Center eventually grew to approximately 30 instructional and training programs reaching more than 30,000 educators worldwide. Its impact — particularly in bringing STEM programming to disadvantaged youth in 23 states nationwide — earned the Center a prestigious honor in January of 2011 when McGrath traveled to Washington, D.C. on behalf of CIESE to accept a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring from President Barack Obama.

"Over more than a quarter-century, CIESE has been a pioneer in the use of technology of various types to improve student learning and increase persistence and career interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics," says McGrath. "CIESE's impact has been felt locally, through its work with Hoboken and Hudson County schools, as well as throughout New Jersey and in more than 25 U.S. states and in more than a dozen countries. Through programs delivered directly to teachers and students, through turnkey training and scale-up programs and through its contributions to STEM education research, CIESE has literally changed the landscape of K-12 STEM education."

“I know first-hand the value that Stevens' CIESE program brings to the Hoboken Public School system," adds Ruth Tyroler, president of the Hoboken Board of Education. "Over more than 25 years, the Center has provided professional development in science, mathematics, and engineering to more than 250 Hoboken educators. This partnership helps our teachers create learning environments that excite and engage students in STEM learning and helps prepare our students for success in a dynamic 21st-century workforce where technology proficiency is essential. My son participated in CIESE’s WaterBotics® summer camp for Hoboken youth, and I was able to see how science and engineering can be both fun and relevant for middle school students and how students' ideas about possible career paths expand as a result of experiences like this.

"The partnership with CIESE and Stevens has benefitted Hoboken Public Schools significantly, and we look forward to strengthening and expanding our collaboration in the years to come."

One of CIESE's most visible successes has been WaterBotics, an engineering design curriculum developed with support from two National Science Foundation (NSF) grants. WaterBotics has engaged thousands of middle school and high school students, including large numbers of girls and underserved minorities who are underrepresented in the STEM workforce.

It works like this: students design, program, test and iteratively improve underwater robots built from LEGO® bricks and other materials to address specific mission challenges such as rescuing simulated drowning swimmers, cleaning up an oil spill, safely detonating underwater mines and salvaging materials from an underwater shipwreck. (The mines, oil slicks and swimmers are represented by such stand-ins as pingpong and Wiffle balls.)

"Rather than emphasizing competition," says Camins, "WaterBotics teaches teamwork. The teams get together and learn from one another, rather than focusing on keeping information private and trying to defeat one another. For years, employers have been telling us that collaboration and communication are prized talents."

The curriculum has been in use in classrooms and out-of-school settings nationwide since 2006, and is now available commercially.

The NSF also supports another major collaborative initiative at CIESE, the Partnership to Improve Student Achievement (PISA2), through an $11.5 million grant to Stevens. PISA2 engages 3rd-through-8th-grade teachers in approximately a dozen New Jersey school districts. The grant, part of NSF’s Math and Science Partnership Program, enables more than 300 teachers to participate in either graduate-level science course classes or a series of week-long summer institutes.

PISA2 teachers also participate in school-year professional development workshops and receive in-school coaching visits from CIESE staff, as well.

"Our whole method of teaching has greatly changed since our PISA2 experience," says Dr. Sylvia Piznik, a 7th-grade science teacher at Intermediate East, a middle school in Toms River, New Jersey. "We now include engineering design and challenges as part of the standard middle school curriculum."

"It is rare to have professional development time to cooperatively discuss, plan and experience STEM activities," adds Helen Cleveland, a 7th-grade teacher in Howell Township’s Middle School South in east-central New Jersey. "While this program challenged my own knowledge of the subject, it also opened my eyes to the struggle my students face daily. I learned more science during this program, but perhaps the greatest lesson learned was experiencing the classroom as a student again."

New STEM academies, classrooms, energy

All this training and professional development has trickled down to school districts' academic programming, as well.

In Brick Township, on the New Jersey shore, for example, the Emma Havens Young Elementary School added a special STEM classroom for 3rd- through 5th-grade students.

In Bayonne, an ethnically diverse New Jersey city just a few miles from New York City, 3rd- and 7th-grade students at the highly regarded Nicholas Oresko School team up to tackle simplified engineering challenges such as designing a new, improved hot-water bottle. Influenced heavily by CIESE, the city's high school unveiled a STEM Academy in September 2014, a dedicated floor where students in grades 9 through 12 convene to study biology and robotics and meet with fellow New Jersey schools for friendly science competitions.

Bayonne has also recently added special weekend science courses for eighth-graders, constructed a 'biodome' housing roughly 300 small animals for care, feeding and study, and trained teachers to deliver coursework and score tests on state-of-the-art smart boards that would not look out of place in a corporate boardroom. With 8,000 new ChromeBook laptops set to be delivered to the city's 3rd-through-12th-grade students for use on homework assignments this spring, Bayonne's superintendent says she's grateful for Stevens' longtime support and guidance in the technology training students crave.

"Stevens has given our teachers access to high-level mathematicians and high-level engineers and helped create a great deal of excitement here," says city Superintendent of Schools Patricia McGeehan, whose school district has collaborated with CIESE since the mid-1990s. "We are now packing our gymnasium, a venue normally used exclusively for athletics events, with a different audience: parents cheering for their kids, on a Saturday or Sunday, while they build robots."

The high school's engineering curriculum, she points out, is drawn directly from one CIESE designed.

"I walk these classrooms and I see kids who are so intent on learning," McGeehan notes. "Their engagement and their time on task are remarkable; nobody is sitting in these classrooms looking out the window. The technology and the new areas of curriculum have stimulated the entire community, teacher and student alike.

"And Stevens gave us the base, the foundation, for all of this."