Education Associate Dean Tony Murphy ensuring that St. Kate's is 'full STEM ahead'

Education Associate Dean Tony Murphy ensuring that St. Kate's is 'full STEM ahead'
Students in St. Kate's EcoSTARS program gain experience teaching STEM subjects at partner elementary schools in the Twin Cities. Photo by Sher Stoneman.

Dr. Tony Murphy, associate dean of the Education Program within the School of Professional Studies, is leading the faculty collaboration behind St. Catherine University’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) minor for future teachers and other students who want to increase their competencies in these forward-thinking disciplines.

In 2004, St. Kate’s received a $240,000 grant from the 3M Foundation to develop the curriculum for the STEM minor. Medtronic Foundation also funded scholarships for this program for a limited time. The program, comprised of five interdisciplinary, team-taught courses, caught the attention of a federal agency in Washington, D.C. A team from St. Kate’s flew to the nation’s capital in August to discuss how the minor was developed.

Here Dr. Murphy discusses several of the program’s objectives, which include sending confident, STEM-literate educators out into the classroom and the community.

Q. What was the catalyst behind the development of the STEM minor?
A. We want to give elementary education majors confidence, competence and the comfort level to teach areas of STEM in the classroom. You need to get K–12 students excited about STEM subjects early. Otherwise, by the time they reach high school, it’s too late. At various points between elementary school and college, people tend to “leak out” of the STEM fields. This is why we believe we need to get students interested in STEM at the K–5 level.

As of this fall 2009, all elementary education majors are required to take three of the five STEM courses; we call these the STEM certificate. St. Kate’s is currently the only college or university in the state that has elementary education majors graduating with a STEM certificate and the only one with an engineering course for elementary education majors.

Beyond that we also want to create a STEM-literate society. Not all of us are a Jane Goodall or an atomic scientist, but STEM permeates our society so much in this informational and technological age that it’s important to have the basic tools, concepts and understanding of STEM and its impact on us every day.

Q. What sort of challenges do elementary educators face regarding STEM courses?
A. In the past, some teachers who went into elementary education didn’t feel prepared to teach science. Now student assessment in the elementary grades is changing. In 2009, students were evaluated on their scientific knowledge at the elementary level. Over the last several years, there has been a focus on assessing reading and mathematics skills, but that has excluded focus on other subjects, including science. So, if we’re going to assess students in the areas of science, we need to start preparing their teachers to be confident, competent and comfortable teaching STEM.

Q. What courses comprise the STEM minor?
A. The STEM minor is made up of five courses, the first three of which comprise the STEM certificate. A few existed already and have been modified, and others are brand new. The courses include:

“Environmental Biology,” which is divided into three modules: “What is Science?” “Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico” and “Climate Change.”

“Chemistry of Life,” which looks at the chemistry of the human body and its environment. The focus is on physical, social and environmental concerns of modern society.

“Engineering in Your World,” which includes modules on structures, machines and mechanisms, hydraulics and pneumatics, and electricity and electronics.

“Environmental Science: A Path to Sustainability,” which provides an introduction to modern concepts of environmental science and principles of sustainability.

“Robots and the Earth: A Scientific Journey Through Time,” which traces the development of robots from their earliest conception to the present.

We also assess the students in the STEM minor with pre- and post-tests on all courses. So far, we’ve found a significant increase in knowledge and confidence in STEM fields. It’s very heartening.

Q. The STEM minor is promoted as using a lot of hands-on training. How do you work this into the curriculum?
All of the courses are inquiry-based and have a lab associated with each of them. Students develop questions and hypotheses; they design and conduct experiments, collect and analyze data. They also design and build structures. This varies with each course, so students are engaged actively in the inquiry process, and in their own learning.

In addition, the Twin Cities metro area has a lot of great resources that we use for field trips. The Belwin Reserve in Afton, the Green Institute in Minneapolis and the exhibit areas at the Science Museum in St. Paul are just a few. We also partner with the National Center for Earth-Surface Dynamics (NCED), a National Science Foundation funded center, which has a working lab near St. Anthony Falls, so students can see how various scientists do their research with large-scale models. NCED’s Education Director, Karen Campbell is also involved in teaching and developing courses.

Q. How are integrative teaching practices used in the STEM minor?
A. All STEM courses are co-taught by a STEM faculty member and an education faculty member. We want elementary education majors to have teaching pedagogy infused into the sciences. Thirteen faculty members were involved — from education, physics, biology, chemistry and mathematics — in designing the minor, and many of them co-teach the courses. A faculty member from the psychology department evaluates all courses, and this informs any changes we make to the curriculum.

In the final course, “Robots and the Earth,” we integrated literacy skills. Writing a technical report is different than writing creatively, so we pose the question: How do you read a science text to get the most out of it? One objective in this course is to help students learn to teach these literacy skills to elementary students.

Q. Tell us about your meeting with the federal agency in Washington, D.C.
A. The federal government is very interested in our work on STEM because our courses are aimed at elementary education majors, and the government wants to look at wider implications of our program for literacy. Most of the other education programs with STEM are focused primarily on the middle and secondary grade levels.

At the meeting, we presented STEM as a strategic initiative for St. Kate’s. We discussed our model for STEM education for elementary education majors and the new in-service STEM certificates we have created for Montessori and conventional elementary educators. In the coming months, we’ll be continuing our conversations with a number of federal agencies about possible collaborations. Because of our engineering course, the Minnesota Department of Education is interested in our program as engineering becomes a focus of the new K–12 science standards coming into play next year.

Q. What are a few ways St. Kate’s works with area schools through the STEM initiative?
A. We're creating a cohesive strategy around STEM education that encompasses the curriculum and program development that the education department has undertaken. Our goals are to bring together national expertise on effective teaching methods, to keep building relationships with K–12 schools and develop a research program that helps us further understand the effectiveness of K–12 STEM teaching techniques, especially as they affect girls and students of color.

We have also developed an experience called EcoSTARS for our elementary education majors. This has evolved as a result of relationships with area schools. We have a strong partnership with the Prior Lake/Savage school district and, more recently, with Crossroads Elementary in St. Paul and Northrop Elementary in Minneapolis where our elementary education majors and faculty work together to teach STEM concepts to elementary students. This work has been funded by the Jeffers Foundation and HB Fuller.

Q. You’re also involved in Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE). Can you explain how GLOBE works with the STEM minor?
A. GLOBE is a worldwide, hands-on, primary- and secondary school–based science and education program. It involves about 110 countries. The idea is to get K–12 students doing real science — for example, going outside and monitoring rainfall, soil or water quality — and sharing that data via a website with the rest of the world. We have integrated parts of the program into the minor courses, so our students can learn how to use it in their future schools. GLOBE is also integrated into the EcoSTARS experience for our elementary education majors.

Tom Vogel is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.

By Tom Vogel
Oct. 16, 2009

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