Education faculty awarded NSF grant to help high schoolers prep for STEM careers

A map with a smart phone placed on top of it.
Project members will work with high school faculty and students to develop hands-on STEM projects that use geographic information systems, GPS and related technology.

RICHLAND, Wash. –Washington State University Tri-Cities education faculty are part of a new, $2.85 million National Science Foundation grant to develop curriculum and hands-on projects with local high schools that use geospatial technologies to improve STEM literacy and access to the STEM workforce. The four-year project is a collaboration between WSU, Lehigh University and Texas Christian University.

Project members will work with high school faculty and students to develop hands-on STEM projects that use geographic information systems, GPS and related technology to gather and analyze data on important societal issues, said Judy Morrison, academic director for the College of Education at WSU Tri-Cities.

At each of the three university sites, faculty will collaborate with two high schools in their area to form what is called a “research practice partnership” to co-design, develop and implement the data-driven, socio-environmental science investigations, as part of the schools’ regular curriculum.

Leading up to this grant, Lehigh University developed a few hands-on projects with local high schools in their area that investigate topics such as the urban heat island effect, the civic impact of urban trees and the carbon cost of different transportation systems. Morrison said throughout the first year of the four-year grant, WSU faculty will work with six high school teachers in the Tri-Cities to plan the project. They will use the original Lehigh University projects as models to assess how to implement similar projects into their local curriculum.

In the last few years of the grant, the team will work with a larger group of 10 teachers to get the curriculum developed for use in the classroom. They will then collect data on the outcomes of the projects and how they affected students’ STEM abilities and attitudes towards a career in STEM fields. Student projects will be tied to issues specific to the local region. One project, for example, could be studying water quality at or surrounding the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, Morrison said.

“The learning activities provide opportunities for students to collaborate, seek evidence, problem-solve, master technology, develop geospatial thinking and reasoning skills and practice communication skills,” she said. “Each are essential for careers in the STEM fields that require students to not only use logical thinking processes, but also develop creative solutions for complex issues.”

Each university partnering on the grant is working with high schools of different sizes and types in their local area. WSU Tri-Cities is specifically working with Chiawana High School, a large traditional high school based in Pasco, as well as River’s Edge High School, a small project-based high school in Richland.

“Each university on the grant has a large comprehensive high school, as well as a smaller high school they are working with,” Morrison said. “We will be looking at different schools and how this model can be used effectively at each.”

Throughout the four-year grant, the three universities will compare results on their projects and discuss the best way to implement them, not only at other high schools across their particular state, but also across the country. Morrison said they will rely heavily on high school teachers to develop and implement projects that make the most sense for their students and region.

“We want it to be ground-up with the teachers,” Morrison said. “We, at WSU Tri-Cities, are going to provide the resources and organization to help get the program up and running, and the teachers will be crucial in designing the curriculum for their own students.”

Morrison is an associate professor of science education At WSU Tri-Cities, she will work with WSU Tri-Cities colleagues Jonah Firestone, assistant professor of science education, and Sarah Newcomer, associate professor of literacy education for the project.

Firestone has a background in working with technology to expand learning opportunities in an effort to supplement learning. Newcomer has a background in working with diverse school populations and relating learning back to the students’ own culture.

“While the use of the technology on this project is important, it is not at the forefront,” Morrison said. “We want the students to see the technology as tools in how they can investigate and answer questions surrounding these local issues. These are vital skills in STEM careers. It is not the technology that is the most important, but how you use the technology for creative investigations and solutions through science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

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