Expanding STEM Education With Teacher Training

Students in Pat Yongpradit’s computer science class at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, work with robots and create mobile games and apps for real-world social causes – like How to Get A Date With an Environmentalist, or Just In Time, a game about maternal health.

“I spend my day inspiring students to dream and create technology to improve our world,” he says. At the same time, he’s broadening participation in computer science to underrepresented groups like girls and minority students. “We don’t learn about technology just for the sake of technology – we apply it to a cause, so it’s technology with a purpose, and that appeals to everyone.”

Yongpradit joined NEA Secretary-Treasurer Becky Pringle on a “Conversations on Education” panel at the Microsoft Innovation & Policy Center in D.C. last week. The panel’s focus was on widening the access to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education to more students.

Not only does it require real-world applications that spark the imaginations of students, the panel, which included Peter Zamora, Director of Federal Relations for the Council of Chief State Schools, and Andrew Ko, General Manager of Partners for in Learning, Microsoft, agreed that STEM courses should be part of the core curriculum and should count as required credits for graduation. It’s also essential to increase the pool of qualified STEM educators.

President Obama has called for the training of 100,000 new science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) teachers to prepare students for the 2.7 million new jobs expected in those sectors by 2018. NEA responded in October 2012 with a $500,000 challenge grant that calls on leading business and technology companies and philanthropists to join the Association in working to expand successful teacher training programs.

Pringle explained the NEA STEM grant program at the panel last week, and announced that the first challenge grant will prepare more Colorado students for STEM careers. Last month, NEA awarded a $200,000 grant for progressive science and math training programs in that state.

“If we’re going to be successful as a country, we have to ensure equitable access to STEM education for all groups of students,” Pringle says. “We have to make sure that we close those gaps for ethnic minorities or children living in poverty or children living in rural areas, and ensure they have the kind of access…to the highly qualified teachers needed to help them be successful.”

In addition to seeding a grant of up to $500,000, NEA hopes to raise a total of $1.5 million by challenging technology firms and philanthropists to match their grant to help fund efforts like those of  New Jersey’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) and bring it to schools across the country. CTL’s Progressive Science Initiative (PSI) and Progressive Math Initiative (PMI)cultivates highly qualified educators to fill science and math teacher shortages. The program has added more than 130 new physics and chemistry teachers since it began in 2009.

CTL’s program uses free digital materials to support the teaching of more than 20 courses in math and science, which some 500 existing STEM-subject teachers have used in New Jersey schools.

The idea is to train more teachers like Pat Yongpradit, a 2010 Microsoft Worldwide Innovative Educator who is showing his computer programming students that they can apply their game design skills to careers in everything from fashion design to medicine or any field they are interested in.

“The students then see that they can make a difference with what they’re learning,” he says. “That’s what gives me the most satisfaction.”