Teaching 10,000 Teachers: The Collaborative That Reshapes Math & Science Curriculum

Bolstering STEM instruction with research-driven best practices to give all students skills for success.

Elementary school students in the Westmoreland Public Library summer reading club are transformed into architects designing a stained glass window for an underwater castle, where the rainbow fish and his friends will live. The students don’t know it, but they’re studying fractions via a lesson inspired by the classic children’s book The Rainbow Fish. This Storytime STEM Pack curriculum is aligned with Common Core math standards, and the librarians facilitating the activity boosted their comfort teaching these concepts thanks to the work of Gabriela Rose and the Math and Science Collaborative, a project of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit.

Preparing All Students By Helping All Educators

In a nutshell, the Math and Science Collaborative exists to bring innovative and effective approaches to teaching and curriculum development in our region. Members of the collaborative do things like work with the committees defining what STEM education might look like statewide or working to integrate computer science into all schools. They work with the assessment committees for the PSSA and Keystone exams. Director Mike Fierle says their work is to prepare educators to prepare all students for work in the 21st Century. Since 1994, they’ve supported educators in more than 135 schools (and out of school time educators) that span all of Southwestern PA and their initiatives have touched more than 10,000 educators of underserved students, filling their toolboxes of effective teaching practices.

Sometimes this work means responding to a call from the public librarians in Westmoreland County, where the public library offers the only opportunity rural students have for STEM enrichment in the summer months. Other times, Fierle builds day-long professional development activities for teachers in Clarion County, where the teachers in this rural area have not received math-focused professional development for 15 years.

The Collaborative receives both federal and local grants to support educators working with underserved students whose test scores indicate a gap in performance in several areas of mathematics and scientific achievement. Fierle interviews teachers to see which areas they find most challenging to instruct and then helps them to build innovative instructional practices. He says, “We’re really looking to establish a culture in the classrooms where students feel safe to take risks in mathematics, are engaged in high level math tasks, and work collaboratively to solve problems.”

During trainings, teachers become learners as Fierle’s team leads them through a lesson and asks them to reflect on how such tasks might look in their own classrooms, what tools made the content feel more accessible, and how each task aligned with standards for learning. He says, “We are very intentional about asking teachers to think about their students’ prior knowledge and experiences they bring to the classroom and how that shapes how people learn.” Teachers move on to analyze someone else’s teaching practice around the same task and think about the classroom implications and how that would translate into their own practice.

Support from Strategic Partners

Rose and Fierle are quick to point out that their work shaping teaching and learning is made possible not only by grant funding, but also by relationships with strategic partners throughout the region. After creating the Storytime Stem Kits to meet the public librarians’ requests, the Collaborative realized that Head Start teachers found the support from the kits to be invaluable.

Fierle explains that Head Start teachers don’t necessarily have a background in teaching STEM subjects and said they felt intimidated by the idea of introducing these subjects to young children. Rose says, “We want to meet the needs of all educators who have barriers to implementing STEM education!”

A partnership with the Fred Rogers Company allowed the Collaborative to create curriculum modules specifically designed for Head Start teachers. Using the show Peg+Cat, the Collaborative helped create games and apps to help Head Start educators infuse math experiences into preschool experiences. The Collaborative created 80 hours of professional development curriculum to pair with the media to engage those educators and instill in them the notion that everyone can learn math, even at very young ages.

Fierle says, “It was a huge undertaking, pulling together all the Head Start educators in our region over the summer, but that synergy happened” and the teachers learned engaging activities that introduce meaningful math concepts (like pattern identification) to preschoolers. Fierle says, “The outcome was modular professional development that can be delivered to all Head Start teachers across the nation.”

Bringing Aha! Moments to Teachers

In addition to working with renowned educational experts like the Fred Rogers Company, the Collaborative pairs with leading researchers in education at universities throughout the region. But the leaders of the Collaborative are no slouches themselves: Rose is the leader of 55 curators nationwide helping to develop the Next Generation Science Standards for K-12 educators. Rose was selected through a competitive process to vet resources for the National Science Teacher Association.

It is with this perspective that Rose approaches the challenge of finding innovative ways to shift teacher practices and enrich STEM education. In recent years, she explored ideas to bring STEM concepts into English and Language Arts classrooms. One solution involved taking teachers on field trips to visit scientists, engineers, and other STEM professionals at work in corporate partner facilities. Rose brought teachers from different subject areas into the labs and onto the manufacturing floors to talk with professionals about their work and their education.

The teachers later debrief to discuss how they see various skills at play in that setting. Rose says, “The aha! moments are always similar. Teachers see how 21st Century skills like critical thinking, collaboration, and communication must be precise, both written and verbally.” Rose loves showing teachers how the employees they shadow have strong content knowledge but very much value creativity and design. “The teachers see they need to change their craft and practices,” she says, “And English and Language Arts teachers emerge seeing how their role is important in STEM education, how they play a vital role in STEM learning.”

Continuing to Expand Offerings

The Collaborative is constantly writing grants to bring more resources to our region, looking to support teachers in overlooked areas. For instance, they’ve begun consulting with teachers of students who have an IEP and are working with them to bolster their complex support needs in bringing math and science education to those students. Fierle also says the AIU will be one of two providers in the state for code.org training, to build that capacity in educators in our region. He says, “Teachers, especially at the secondary level, can touch 100 kids each day and are the driving force behind the culture of a school.”

Published January 04, 2018

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