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What Did You Learn to be in School Today?

Filling the pipeline with the next generation of chemists, engineers and rocket scientists isn’t easy. New research at North Carolina State University hopes to drive U.S. students to careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, also known as STEM.

A team of researchers at NC State, led by Dr. Sarah Stein, associate professor of communication, recently received a $1.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation that will bring advanced mathematics software to rural, underserved high schools in North Carolina through NC State’s innovative cloud computing solution, the Virtual Computing Lab (VCL). The program, called “Scale-Up: Scaling up STEM Learning with the VCL,” is designed to be replicated across the state and country. Stein’s colleagues on the project include Dr. Eric Wiebe and Dr. Karen Hollebrands, both associate professors of mathematics, science and technology education, and Dr. Henry Schaffer, coordinator of special IT projects in the Office of Information Technology.

“Students and teachers can enter the VCL remotely from computers in their classrooms, libraries or even at home, and access expensive software packages that run on powerful remote servers housed centrally for use by any N.C. school,” Stein says. “Using broadband Internet access, K-12 students can use the best new teaching software without schools having to install the software on individual computers – which is a significant advantage.”

Beginning in the summer of 2010, algebra and geometry teachers from four districts in North Carolina will participate in a series of professional development workshops to learn how to incorporate Fathom and The Geometer’s Sketchpad into their classrooms. These software programs use real-world, problem-solving scenarios to teach algebra and geometry concepts. From there, researchers will observe how teachers use the VCL to incorporate the software into their curriculum, while providing ongoing support. The teacher development and classroom practice will be further enhanced and linked to STEM careers through a mentor network developed by the project.

“For instance, after using The Geometer’s Sketchpad program to teach the triangle inequality theorem, a retired mechanical engineer could speak to a class – either in person or on the Internet – about how they would use that theorem in designing a particular mechanical part,” Hollebrands says. “Students would make an instant connection with the real-world implications of the formulas they are learning.”

The  scale-up program leverages several other initiatives NC State’s Friday Institute for Educational Innovation has undertaken. Through the N.C. School Connectivity program, all K-12 schools in the state have access to broadband Internet. The institute is also working on the N.C. 1:1 Learning Technology Initiative that supports bringing one laptop to every student and teacher in the N.C. K-12 school system.

“If at the end of this program, students have a better understanding of these mathematics concepts and are more interested in pursuing careers that would use the learning and capabilities they’ve gained – then that is encouraging,” Stein says. “We hope by improving student achievement and interest in mathematics through meaningful and relevant instruction with powerful technology tools, students will be more prepared to pursue STEM-related majors in college that may lead to greater participation in STEM-related careers.”