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Blazing trails in science and math education

In any given elementary school math or science classroom on any given day, a student is likely to utter these words:

"I don't know why I need to learn this. I won't ever need to do this when I'm an [insert career here]."

Thanks to the national spotlight on achievement through state testing, math and science have been subjects of focus for the past few years. So far the news is good. In a report released in August 2011, statewide test results for math and science are on the rise. In elementary schools across Washington, fifth grade math scores rose 7.6 percent from 2010 and science scores were up 21.6 percent.

In an article published in The Seattle Times, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn attributed this growth to clearer requirements and test timing. While this improvement shows promise, it does not put all concerns for math and science achievement at ease.

That's why Woodring, in its ongoing partnership with the College of Sciences and Technology (CST), is addressing achievement in these two important subject areas by focusing energy and resources on what the college knows best.

Teacher preparation.

$2.9 million toward measuring elementary science

Previous science success sets the stage for NSF funds

Woodring and CST were well-positioned to commence work proposed through the NSF Grant thanks to legacies from the successful North Cascades and Olympic Science Partnership (NCOSP).

NCOSP provided educators with a robust range of science education resources and produced powerful data sets marking successful efforts.

One such data point shows students who had NCOSP teacher leaders performed better on the science portion of the WASL. That score jumped significantly higher for students who had NCOSP teacher leaders for two years in a row.

In August 2011, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Western $2.9 million for a five-year study to measure the impacts of Woodring's science teacher preparation program. This study will allow researchers to follow K-6 science teachers as they work their way through their program at Woodring and into their first few years in the classroom.

Dr. Dan Hanley, Director of Model of Research-based Education (MORE) for Teachers, leads the research team for the NSF grant. 

"This is a huge project and will have significant impacts on the elementary science education program," Hanley says. "K-12 students will benefit, but the ultimate goal is to develop effective teachers who will continue to benefit students for years to come."

The goal of the NSF grant is two-fold. Researchers want to gauge the impacts of the teacher prep program on student understanding, as well as uncover strengths and weaknesses of the program that can be translated to future improvements. 

In a press release published by Western Washington University, principal investigator Chris Ohana of the Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education Program (SMATE) explained why this type of research is unique.

"University teacher educators rarely have the opportunity to follow their students into their teaching careers. In this study, we will not only track our students into their first years of teaching, but we will also be able to isolate specific elements within our program to see what the impacts might be on teaching."

Western keeps math and science teachers in the education pipeline

While developing quality teachers is the goal of the NSF grant awarded to the Elementary Education Department, attracting them is the objective of a NSF $900,000 grant awarded to the Secondary Education Department. The Robert Noyce Program of the NSF provides summer internships for freshmen and sophomore mathematics/science majors to consider teaching. The grant also provides scholarship funding for students who are earning their secondary level teaching certificate in mathematics and/or science.

The college will continue to award scholarships through 2014. A total of 61 will be awarded to current students and math and science professionals pursuing new careers in education.

As Woodring Professor Bruce Larson explains, students receiving these scholarships need to complete a service requirement.

"Each scholarship recipient must commit to teaching two years in a high needs district," Larson says. "The goal is that the new teachers will see these high needs districts are a wonderful place to be and will stay."

Western senior Saraswati Noel is a recipient of the Noyce grant. She first learned about the opportunity for the funds through an internship at a high school in Mount Vernon where she taught remedial math and general science to ninth graders in summer school.

She calls the internship a turning point in her college career.

"It was amazing to see the passion in students when they finally got something," Noel says. "I had one student who wanted to be a chef who said 'Why do I need this? I'll never use this.'"

Noel returned to the next day of summer school with a recipe to show the student the connection between math and his future career through the story of a dinner party.

"Math is essential and necessary for our life," Noel says. "Some kids think they aren't good at it and can't see how it connects with the world. Working in the classroom with students early in my college career really ignited my passion for teaching."

Putting the pieces of the future together.

Noel views math as a passion she can share with young people. She looks forward to her two-year commitment working in a high needs school, which she will embark on when she returns from her student teaching assignment in Central America Spring quarter.

Dr. Hanley sees math and science as an important piece of a much larger puzzle.

"Science is important because it develops skills for being a critical consumer of information," Hanley says. "We all need these skills. It's essential for our society."


Woodring College of Education
Western Washington University
MS 9088
516 High Street
Bellingham, WA 98225-9088

Location on Campus
MH 250 (campus map)
Phone: (360) 650-3319