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Who Knew Math and Science Could Be So Cool?

May 12, 2010
Jeffrey Weld
Cedar Rapids Gazette
January 3, 2010

Jeffrey Weld, Ph.D.
Director, Iowa Mathematics and Science Education Partnership

Test scores showed Iowa learners slipping to merely average in math and science by comparison to other states (who, collectively, rate mediocre among top-tier nations). Enrollment trends failed to support emerging job growth in fields heavy in science and math. That's when the Iowa Mathematics and Science Education Partnership (IMSEP) was created.

A collaboration of the state's public universities led by the University of Northern Iowa, and in alliance with K-12 schools, private and community colleges, AEAs, and businesses, IMSEP has helped to reinvigorate science and math in hundreds of communities across Iowa since 2008.

One of approximately 30 states to recently launch STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) initiatives, Iowa's effort is now complemented by President Obama's "Educate to Innovate" campaign announced weeks ago to "strengthen America's role as the world engine of scientific discovery and technological innovation."

The nationwide program is funded by more than $200 million from companies and private foundations intent on finding and replicating successful science, math and technology education innovations. Not since Sputnik has there been such universal resolve to improve math and science teaching and learning. But unlike the space race, this is an economic competition to sustain the quality of life we all take for granted.

Midway through its second year, the Iowa Mathematics and Science Education Partnership has partnered more than one hundred professors with some 1,500 teachers for the benefit of countless learners. Enrichment camps, professional development, after-school programs, innovative curriculum, and other supports have impacted 209 communities in 86 Iowa counties, prominently including the Linn County region.

For example, Linn-Mar High School students work in teams to reverse-engineer problematic designs through Project Lead The Way, a pre-engineering curriculum now offered at more than 100 schools through IMSEP-supported engineering outreach at the University of Iowa and Iowa State University. Harding Middle Schoolers are learning about the geology of Iowa— its relevance to our mining and agriculture industries, thanks to a joint workshop of earth science faculty at UNI and UI.

The math achievement gap is narrowing at an Anamosa elementary school using lesson study groups coordinated by faculty at UI and UNI. Blairstown chemistry students are learning about bonds and balanced equations through authentic experiments coached by a team of chemists from UI, UNI, and ISU.

And, more than 200 elementary age youth enjoy after-school STEM clubs managed through the IMSEP-funded Corridor STEM Initiative of the Grant Wood AEA. These examples highlight the school-university connections made through Iowa's STEM education initiative. IMSEP focuses on the teacher pipeline and business links to education as well.

Far more science and math teachers reach retirement age each year than are produced by Iowa's colleges and universities. To meet that challenge, IMSEP leaders created the recruitment program I-Teach Math & Science, now operating at UNI and ISU, in partnership with two community colleges—North Iowa Area and Hawkeye. In the first two semesters of operation, more than 100 bright new math and science majors have participated in the nascent program.

Parallel to teacher production efforts is a multi-pronged campaign to build a culture of science and math achievement through partnerships with businesses, science centers, and other educational assets of the state. Forward-thinking Iowa industries, including Clipper Wind Power of Cedar Rapids, partnered in kicking off Real World Externships to help math and science teachers modernize their teaching through summer jobs in authentic worksites. Informal education centers are promoting an IMSEP message through radio, television, and posters to ask the question, "Who knew math and science could be so cool?"

The answer can come from learners themselves who enjoy inspired teachers and engaged communities.