Montessori teachers get hands-on experience in engineering
Montessori teachers created a human cathedral to learn the engineering concept of how supports or buttresses hold up extremely tall buildings. The work was part of a graduate certificate program in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) underwritten by the Medtronic Foundation. Photo by Rebecca Zenefski '10.

Montessori teachers get hands-on experience in engineering

Eleven Montessori teachers spent one day during a weeklong course creating a human cathedral in the morning and building houses in the afternoon. What kind of professional development is this?

This professional development is St. Catherine University’s graduate certificate program for Montessori teachers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Underwritten by a Medtronic Foundation grant, the ground-breaking STEM graduate certificate course is in its second year.

The on-campus course is team-taught by Assistant Professor Catherine Ibes (St. Kate’s Center for Contemporary Montessori Programs) and Assistant Professor Yvonne Ng (Computer Science and Engineering) who also directs the Center for Women, Science & Technology.

Taught in a summer institute format over three years, the certificate program includes a week of hands-on teacher training followed by mentoring and support during each academic year.

The first weeklong session was held during the summer of 2008, when teachers studied earth science principals. This year the focus was on engineering and the differences between science and engineering.

Activities such as building a human cathedral gave Montessori teachers a visceral understanding of the engineering concept of force and the innovation of what engineers call "flying buttresses" -- a series of supports that enable the largest cathedrals to stand tall.

J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School teachers Amy Hinricks (left, with
glue gun) and Rose Dorer carefully construct a model home. Photo by
Julie Michener.
The engineering concepts of materials and structures were explored by building model homes and subjecting the roof, interior and foundation to strength and water-resistance tests.

Teachers from five Montessori schools in Minnesota were on campus for the week as part of a graduate certificate course that combines three weeklong campus programs with personalized follow-up, advising and assessment from St. Kate’s faculty.

“The personal support helps teachers integrate the toolkits they receive as part of the program into the school’s curriculum,” said Ibes. “I visit each teacher in his or her classroom to provide feedback, and we also have an advisory meeting to assess what they learned and find out what was successful and what we can improve.”

To build more self-sustaining support within the group, teachers have formed lesson-study groups to visit one another's classrooms throughout the school year. They will observe one another in the classroom and then debrief to modify and improve their STEM-teaching techniques.

“Our challenge this year was to break down engineering concepts and give teachers in pre-school, elementary or middle school classrooms what they need to know to teach engineering to students at each level," Ng explains.

St. Catherine University faculty are proto-typing the three-year sequence as part of a University initiative to better prepare teachers with the latest techniques to engage students in the STEM subjects.

Beginning this year, St. Catherine is the only college or university in Minnesota that requires elementary-education majors to earn the undergraduate STEM certificate -- part of the STEM minor -- a unique interdisciplinary set of courses designed to build techniques and confidence in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

By Julie Michener
Aug. 24, 2009

Contact Julie Michener, (651) 690-6521

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