October 07, 2011

NSF grant funds unique science outreach program

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Southern Illinois University Carbondale, along with other agencies, soon will start a program funded by the National Science Foundation that targets middle school students’ science education.

The College of Science, along with the College of Education and Human Services at the University, will spearhead the $3.25 million effort, which also involves area school districts, Shawnee Community College and the Boys and Girls Club of Carbondale.  The program is titled “A Community of Problem Solvers:  Teachers Leading Problem-Based Learning in Southern Illinois.”

The money from the NSF will help train 20 “Master Teacher Fellows” to provide a comprehensive science education to boys and girls in fourth through eighth grades in rural areas throughout Southern Illinois.  The program will support such teachers for five years as they gain mastery of science education by performing outdoor research in the Cache River wetlands.

“This is a wonderful example of the educational outreach and support we provide to colleagues and younger students throughout our region,” Chancellor Rita Cheng said.  “These partnerships will lead to long-term benefits by enhancing students’ appreciation of, and interest in, science and our natural environment.”

Karen Renzaglia, professor of plant biology, associate dean of the College of Science and one of the program leaders, said it would support the University’s commitment to reaching out and forming strong partnerships with school district leaders across the region in the STEM areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“Through the leadership of master teachers, we will improve the quality of  STEM education for students in high-need schools, thereby increasing student performance and enhancing science literacy,” she said.  “Our program uniquely involves teachers and students in interdisciplinary research that focuses on Southern Illinois and differentiates SIU Carbondale from other universities in our region.

“Collaborative problem-solving is a means by which we as a community of learners can improve our quality of life,” Renzaglia said.

The wetlands are a unique experimental laboratory, Renzaglia said.  The fellows will use it to conduct real-life science experiences for students while also showing other teachers -- current, those in training and community college faculty -- ways to include such lessons in their classrooms.

Renzaglia worked with Harvey Henson, assistant dean of the College of Science, on a yearlong effort to develop the program.  She said the effort is met with excitement in the schools where it will operate.

“The enthusiasm toward this program was beyond our expectations,” Renzaglia said.  “We worked with teachers and administrators to design engaging, relevant and fun activities for teachers and students in our region, hence the ‘back yard science' approach.”

Henson said the College of Science at SIU Carbondale has a rich history in working with teachers to promote their professional development while engaging area students in science.

“We are excited to partner with some of the region’s best teachers to innovate and research ways to help increase science appreciation and achievement among middle school students who need it most,” Henson said. “This initiative represents a significant leap in our efforts to serve Southern Illinois and places our teacher professional development programs and science outreach among the top in the nation.”