Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects are taught to Florida students as early as elementary school, but more teachers and more rigorous training are needed if we are to support the state’s continuous bid to become a reputable high tech economy that relies on an exemplary high-tech work force. The Florida Department of Education put science, especially in middle schools, on its Top 10 list for Critical Teaching Shortages in 2016. In 2017, FLDOE added computer science & literacy and mathematics to the list.
Nancy Ruzycki, Ph.D., Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Laboratories at the UF Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering’s Department of Materials Science & Engineering, is addressing this gap with a $5 million “Supporting Effective Educator Development” (SEED) grant recently awarded to her by the U.S. Department of Education. With the participation of 11 school districts in Florida and members of the Florida High Tech Corridor, as well as the involvement of other UF departments and colleges, she will lead the effort to improve the pedagogy of STEM learning among K-9 students.
The project, “Engaged Quality Instruction through Professional Development” (EQuIPD) will involve 11 urban to rural counties within Florida, including Hillsborough, Palm Beach, Hardee, Hendry, Okeechobee, Glades, DeSoto, Highlands, St. Johns, Sarasota and Manatee counties. These districts account for over 30% of elementary schools on Florida’s lowest 300 list and contain 12 schools listed as persistently underperforming (FLDOE, 2017). Schools in the EQuIPD project will benefit directly from targeted teacher professional development programs that will ultimately increase the number of highly qualified STEM elementary and middle school teachers in these schools, resulting in improved student learning activities and outcomes.
“Our EQuIPD model has three objectives,” said Ruzycki. “First, EQuIPD will train teachers in ‘system thinking’ – how to incorporate inquiry, computational thinking, technology integration and engineering design into problem-solving. Second, we want to help teachers in grades K-9 develop lesson plans for using technical instruments, including sensors and probes, to demonstrate data collection and analysis. Third, EQuIPD will address the issue of how STEM learning affects the technology work force. Teachers will have the opportunity to align with STEM industries in their region through program-sponsored field trips, which will help them meet industry people and network with them.
Professor Michele Manuel, Ph.D., Chair of the Materials Science & Engineering Department, commented on the SEED Grant: “The EQuIPD program provides the opportunity for our engineers to interact directly with STEM teachers and strengthen the link between the college and the diverse population of students in Florida. We look forward to working with this great network of educators.”
Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart said, “Our top priority is ensuring all Florida students have the skills necessary to reach their academic, career and life goals. The number of jobs in STEM-related fields continues to grow, and that is great news for today’s students because most STEM occupations pay significantly more than the national average wage. We have placed an emphasis on STEM-related education at the state level, and I commend Dr. Nancy Ruzycki for earning this grant and for her commitment to helping Florida teachers enhance their skills.”
Looking at the future of the Florida economy, the EQuIPD project seeks to stimulate greater scientific literacy, a more widespread understanding of data, a more-knowledgeable work force, enhanced innovation and entrepreneurship, plus better system thinking that provides a frame of reference for what students are learning and how it fits into the larger technological world. With a more engaged workforce, Florida will make the next leap in building a high tech economy as companies achieve more success and flourish due to further investment.