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NASA-backed program gives students boost in STEM fields
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From left, Alyssa Dalton, Jennifer Compton, Nicole Kessler, Crystal Draper and Tiffany Neamo stand in front of the rocket launch pad at the Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. (Contributed photo)

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Future educators are reaching for the stars through a NASA-sponsored educational development program.

Thirty-two college juniors who are studying education were selected to take part in the inaugural inSTEP program sponsored by the Virginia Space Grant Consortium (VSGC) and 14 higher education institutions in the state.

Among the students were five from Longwood University who are pursuing degrees through the New College Institute (NCI). They are Jennifer Compton, Alyssa Dalton, Crystal Draper, Nicole Kessler and Tiffany Neamo.

“I was proud to be selected to this program as a non-traditional student,” Draper said. “We were learning and collaborating alongside younger, traditional students from Virginia Tech, University of Virginia and colleges across the state.”

InSTEP (Integrative STEM for Pre-service Teachers) is a two-year program designed to help students planning teaching careers in grades 4-8 learn best practices in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math.

Ultimately, these future teachers will be prepared to deliver quality STEM instruction and then share resources and best practices to schools within their communities, according to NCI officials.

A goal of inSTEP is to increase the number and proportion of people, particularly minorities, who complete teacher pre-service programs with the ability to increase students’ understanding of STEM.

The participants recently completed the inSTEP Summer Academy, an 11-day intensive training and educational camp hosted at NASA Langley Research Center and NASA Wallops Flight Facility.

During the academy, participants were taught by STEM experts and received behind-the-scenes tours of the workings of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Instructional workshops included topics such as the engineering design process, energy transfer, astronomy, earth science, robotics, classroom management and innovative project-based learning.

“The highlight for us had to be seeing an actual rocket on the launch pad just days before it was sent into space,” Neamo said.

At the academy, students also were given daily design challenges to test their ability to think creatively and teach multiple skills that public school students are tested on.

“We found these activities to be very enjoyable, engaging ways to learn,” Draper said.

When their training ended, inSTEP participants practiced their newly acquired skills by providing instruction at day programs in underserved communities in the Tidewater area.

“The program encouraged the pre-service teachers to go back and let students know that failure is OK because you can learn from your failures. Using trial and error is all part of the STEM design process,” Compton said.

Along with their experiences at the academy, participants will commit more than 200 hours to learning to understand Earth Systems Science and other science concepts in the context of STEM education and the state Standards of Learning (SOL).

They also are required to maintain an online portfolio, accompanied by mentors who have been selected as master teachers from a cadre of experienced STEM educators.

Participants will present their experiences at state level education conferences.

Each inSTEP student is awarded a $5,000 scholarship to participate in the program along with a variety of free resources to carry on to their future classrooms. These resources include a digital learning network and support system provided by NASA.

“I appreciate that the master teachers are open and willing to help as we learn how to apply STEM techniques within our classrooms,” Dalton said. “They have shown us how to think creatively and apply these techniques to subjects beyond math and science.”

“We often think of STEM as only involving math, but it is the opportunity to create anything — a drawing, an idea or a belief system,” said Pam Randall, faculty and program director of Longwood’s education programs at NCI.

“InSTEP gives our students the opportunity to experience master teaching techniques so that they will be better prepared once they are given their own classroom,” Randall added.


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