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Q&A With STEM Education Center Executive Director Kathy Chen
As the center celebrates its 10-year anniversary, how has your mission evolved?
The STEM Education Center grew out of the WPI K–12 Outreach Office, led by Martha Cyr. Her approach was to focus on the educator/teacher as one of the most effective and impactful ways to support STEM education for K–12 students. As our center has grown in offering high-quality professional development (PD) for educators and is now managing the undergraduate Teacher Preparation Program (TPP) at WPI, we’ve also been able to extend our ways of supporting STEM education by looking beyond the classroom.
K–12 students spend more hours of their lives outside the classroom, and we take a systems approach to how people learn in different contexts to inform our work. We purposefully collaborate with the local community (such as after-school programs) to support engaging STEM learning opportunities that they might not otherwise have access to. Our vision is a world in which empowered educators guide relevant, integrated, and inclusive STEM with their students and community.
Teachers in general are under great stress. How are you supporting STEM educators in these difficult times?
When everything went virtual back in March of 2020, we immediately began the process of searching for online resources to better guide educators in teaching virtually, ultimately creating our Teacher Resources webpage (which has since expanded). We also converted our in-person STEM Club to an online format and began holding weekly Virtual STEM Meet-ups, where we would share various resources to offer tools and support for educators. In addition, during the Summer of 2020, we offered both introductory and advanced online teaching PD sessions for educators. Throughout the pandemic, we built in time and space for teachers to share their experiences, their struggles, and their triumphs. Knowing that they weren’t alone and having the opportunity to just be in a supportive space together has often brought comfort during these challenging times.
How is the Center working to diversify both STEM learners and educators?
We spent a considerable amount of time doing our own homework to learn and have critical conversations about the systemic barriers that exclude different groups from STEM. And we are still learning! We continue to examine how we can shift our own practices to be equitable and anti-racist, and how we can help others along in that journey. One of our most well-attended PDs in Summer 2021 was on equity, inclusion, and anti-racism for high-quality STEM learning. We infuse culturally relevant pedagogy into many of our trainings to encourage educators to be more equity-minded, which leads to better learning for all students. To diversify STEM learners and educators, it’s not just about numbers and representation; we must create an inclusive system where people can thrive by being their authentic selves.
To diversify STEM learners and educators, it’s not just about numbers and representation; we must create an inclusive system where people can thrive by being their authentic selves.
Our Teacher Preparation Program is actively trying to get the word out about how inclusive teachers can make a significant difference in the lives of younger students, and we recently received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Noyce grant to help diversify the teacher workforce. We are also part of the Worcester area ASPIRE Regional Collaborative to develop inclusive and diverse STEM faculty across the nation by preparing graduate students to teach at community colleges.
What STEM Education Center research projects excite you?
We’ve recently received a number of grants from the NSF and from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education (DESE) that further our work in transforming STEM education. Mia Dubosarsky is the principal investigator (PI) on the research about Partnerships for Advancing Computational Thinking in PreK-5 Classrooms, and Shari Weaver is the PI on a Noyce project on Cultivating University-School-Community Partnerships in Preparing STEM Undergraduates to Teach in Urban Environments. Our Professional Development Team (Mia Dubosarsky and Donna Taylor) is currently working with DESE in a statewide initiative for innovative assessment and is using the open-source curriculum OpenSciEd. Most recently we announced applications for our NSF Research Experience for Teachers (RET) Site–Engineering for People and the Planet: Research Experiences to Teach Integrated STEM. This particular grant pulls together our entire staff, in addition to working with WPI faculty, to provide an incredible experience for pre-service (i.e., our TPP students) and in-service (classroom) teachers in our area.
How do you involve WPI students in your work?
We view our Teacher Prep undergrad students as part of our effort to transform STEM education. We work to support and develop educators in facilitating high-quality STEM, and our TPP students affect positive impacts in their classrooms where they do their student teaching, as well as in our local community where they support STEM opportunities.
We also work with WPI students through consulting on K-12 STEM education with IQP teams (about 20 per year), and advising on-campus IQPs that partner with local community-based organizations to provide STEM learning experiences.
We also support projects of our WPI colleagues with our expertise in STEM teaching & learning and Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion. We provide the professional development for the WPI undergraduate and graduate student mentors for the Women’s Research and Mentoring Program, as well as facilitating sessions for the ASPIRE-RC program for graduate students and postdocs in the Worcester region to teach at the community college level.
What might someone be surprised to learn about the Center?
There are only five full-time staff members that make up the STEM Education Center, yet we do a lot! We work with over 500 teachers on an annual basis and around the world. We’ve partnered with the state of Nevada and a team of educators in the Philippines. We also work locally with Worcester community-based organizations (through the Worcester Education Collaborative Woo-Labs initiative) in providing project-based learning experiences for K-6 students. We have varied backgrounds and experiences: former classroom teachers, higher education, national research lab, industry, afterschool program, etc. We lead the Central MA STEM Network Ecosystem. We also have a dog in the office.
What will be the biggest challenge in STEM education over the next 10 years?
The next 10 years will require that STEM education be more culturally responsive and meaningful to all students—both in content and pedagogy (i.e., how concepts/skills are taught). Rather than upholding systems that have excluded and marginalized several groups from STEM, we have the obligation to enable a system and culture where diversity in assets, life experiences, and funds of knowledge are valued and utilized in STEM.
With the world’s complex problems intensifying, STEM education needs to adapt to be more holistic and grounded in local context that includes other disciplines, such as the humanities and social sciences. The next generation of problem solvers won’t necessarily be drawn to specific fields but to ways in which they can be authentic change agents in their community and across the world.