Dartmouth Works With Middle Schools to Enhance STEM Education

The Science Education Partnership Award supports rural science curricula.

Dartmouth, the Montshire Museum of Science, and educators from area middle schools will participate in a five-year project to create new science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs for students and teachers in rural New Hampshire and Vermont.

The initiative, funded by a $1.3 million Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will implement the educational units, build a STEM teacher network for rural New England, and create mentorships between middle school students and Dartmouth graduate students from across the sciences.

“This is a great opportunity for Dartmouth to join colleagues across the region in creating new educational opportunities within our local communities,” says Dean Madden, vice provost for research. “By working with local teachers and students, we hope to share the excitement of scientific discovery and to help foster the next generation of talent in our society.”

Faculty from Dartmouth’s Department of Biological Sciences and Department of Education and from Thayer School of Engineering will join the Guarini School of Graduate and Advanced Studies and the Montshire to work with area teachers and students on the project.

Vicki May, a professor of engineering at Thayer School of Engineering, and Michele Tine, an associate professor of education, will serve as co-investigators on the project. Amanda Skinner, assistant director of outreach and communications at the Guarini School, will serve as the lead outreach coordinator with school administrators and teachers. Roger Sloboda, a professor of biology at Dartmouth, is the project lead.

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Professor Roger Sloboda
Professor of Biological Sciences Roger Sloboda

“Outreach to the community, particularly to under-resourced schools, is vitally important,” says May. “In engineering and sciences in general, the research shows a drop-off in interest in STEM in the middle school years, especially among girls, so if we want to keep those students coming through the pipeline, we need to start early.”

“I hope we’ll come up with some exciting curriculum that will be long-lasting, that the teachers can use for many years to come.”

May has already heard from graduate students from engineering, biology, brain sciences, chemistry, and mathematics who want to get involved in mentoring. “If we can figure out how to communicate with middle school kids and get them excited, it’s going to help us with our own curriculum and the grad students are going to gain a lot by working with the teachers and the middle school students,” she says. “It’s really a win-win.”

The initial phase of the program will involve a close collaboration with middle school teachers from four partner schools within 50 miles of Dartmouth’s campus: Barnet School in Barnet, Vt.; Claremont Middle School in Claremont, N.H.; Indian River Middle School in Canaan, N.H.; and Tunbridge Central School in Tunbridge, Vt. The project will also provide funding for supplies and equipment and help establish a web-based network for science teachers throughout New England.

Tine, whose research includes developing teaching strategies to improve outcomes in under-resourced districts, says rural schools face some unique challenges.

“Teachers in rural districts are often by themselves—they are the only science teacher in the district. And in some schools, they are the only science teacher for sixth, seventh, and eighth grade,” Tine says. “I’m really excited about this broad collaboration between the sciences, education, engineering, and graduate programs at Dartmouth, the Montshire, and teachers and students across the community.”

The aim is to “optimize the hard work these teachers are doing by developing science modules tailored to the unique needs of each school while providing a network with other rural district science teachers so that the curriculum can be built out for years to come,” Tine says.

One STEM unit will be developed and implemented in the pilot schools for each of the first three years of the program. The program will advance from the sixth grade to the eighth grade over that same time period. The program will be expanded to include teachers and students in eight additional schools during the fourth and fifth years of the project. The units will include inquiry-based, hands-on activities, engineering design projects, and media resources.

“Focusing on students before eighth grade—a time when students, especially girls, begin to lose interest in STEM topics—can increase their engagement and their interest,” says Sloboda the principal investigator of the grant. “This project assumes that every teacher has the ability to deliver exciting lessons, and that every student can learn and thrive in science, technology, engineering, and math. We anticipate that the program will help to enhance the learning environment for teachers and students alike.”

The first educational units will be developed in collaboration with local teachers, Dartmouth faculty, and Montshire staff at the beginning of the upcoming school season. Those units will be developed to match areas of high need and interest across the middle school curriculum. Once the units are fully developed, they will be posted to a project website for use by any school system. Dartmouth graduate students will assist in the design and delivery of the program units and will also serve as middle school student mentors.

David Hirsch can be reached at [email protected]. William Platt can be reached at [email protected].