by Tom Parisi
Northern Illinois University is stepping up efforts to boost the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills and interests of students in the region, even before they reach college age.
During the past six years, the Department of Physics, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences External Programming and Division of Administration and University Outreach have collaborated to provide energetic and popular science outreach programs to young students in the region.
NIU Outreach will now manage a new university-wide STEM Outreach program, consolidating and expanding existing efforts across campus. Those efforts include traveling science demonstrations, summer science camps for high school and middle school students and a year-round program for female students designed to encourage career paths in engineering.
“NIU Outreach is providing a home for the new STEM Outreach program, which we believe serves the region’s strategic needs for a STEM-savvy workforce,” said Anne Kaplan, vice president for administration and university outreach.
The program is being funded in an unprecedented way this first year by Outreach, the Office of the Vice Provost and four colleges: Liberal Arts and Sciences, Education, Engineering and Engineering Technology, and Health and Human Sciences.
“We’ve made a central place within the university to coordinate our efforts in the region to engage students in science, math and engineering and raise awareness among teachers, parents and community members about the importance of nurturing these skills,” said Marilyn Bellert, executive assistant to the vice president for administration and university outreach.
“Our region, state and nation need more people who are well qualified to work professionally in the STEM fields,” she added.
An NIU Outreach team has conducted extensive studies on the status of STEM education in Illinois, identifying critical needs that must be met to keep the state competitive. The studies found that students pursuing STEM-related careers need to be better prepared for college, and oftentimes teachers themselves are in need of further professional development. For example, nearly 50 percent of Illinois eighth-grade mathematics teachers aren’t certified to teach mathematics, and one-third of chemistry teachers don’t hold proper state certifications.
The university is increasing both professional development opportunities for teachers and its efforts to introduce young people to emerging scientific fields, including areas of intense research at NIU, from nanoscience and global warming to particle physics and proton therapy.
“Any research we do here may make its way into the STEM Outreach program,” Bellert said. “There’s a need for all of our students to better understand issues related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Consumers and citizens need a general knowledge of these fields in order to make wise decisions on a number of topics, from health care to energy efficiency and conservation.”
The university’s P-20 Task Force was the driving force behind the creation of STEM Outreach. “P-20” refers to the entire education system from pre-school through graduate school.
NIU’s P-20 Task Force coordinates university-wide activities that are aimed at raising student achievement and improving teaching. Co-chaired by Kaplan and Vice Provost Earl “Gip” Seaver, the task force includes college deans Rich Holly (Visual and Performing Arts), Chris McCord (Liberal Arts and Sciences), Shirley Richmond (Health and Human Sciences), Promod Vohra (Engineering and Engineering Technology) and Lemuel Watson (Education).
“The earlier we can engage students in the possibilities of pursuing careers in science and engineering and provide them with the training they need to be successful, particularly in mathematics, the better off we will all be,” McCord said.
“STEM Outreach marries the strengths of our institution to local and national needs,” he added. “We’re taking advantage of NIU’s unique capabilities and the university’s heritage as an institution that has always valued teacher education and worked closely with the region’s schools.”
As of July 1, Pati Sievert has assumed the post of STEM Outreach coordinator. She previously served as a physics instructor and as coordinator of the Frontier Physics outreach program.
Frontier Physics has provided science demonstrations to hundreds of schools. Sievert also has been responsible for the highly successful Haunted Physics Lab, a hands-on learning experience that attracts hundreds of school children to campus each fall and may be expanded under the STEM Outreach program.
Additionally, she has provided science curriculum development training to Rockford teachers, designed museum-based activities for P-12 students and participated in a wide variety of science education work in professional organizations.
“We’re very happy to continue supporting Pati’s work in this new position,” said Kathy Wright, director of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences External Programming. “Pati has established a wonderful track record and great relationship with area schools.”
As STEM Outreach coordinator, Sievert will continue to coordinate regional outreach to schools and communities and develop programming for students, teachers and parents. She intends to bring science demonstrations to as many as 60 schools in the coming year. Sievert also is helping Wright’s office to develop two “New Ideas” conferences for middle and high school science teachers, one focusing on alternative energy and the other on the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s telescope.
“To me, the whole group of STEM subjects is exciting. I’m thrilled to be involved,” said Sievert, a former high school physics teacher. “We have many different packages we can offer schools, aligning our presentations so they relate to the curriculum of a given classroom.”
Some STEM Outreach activities already have been ramped up.
NIU this summer hosted about 250 middle and high school students participating in academic camps that emphasized STEM subjects. Beginning this fall, Sievert’s office also will coordinate visits by students, teachers and school counselors who want to tour laboratories, talk with scientists or learn more about science-related majors at NIU.
The university is conducting internal STEM-related assessments as well, examining ways to improve the performance of NIU students and better coordinate activities among departments and colleges. The STEM Task Force, which is focused on undergraduate education at NIU, will issue a report this fall assessing the strengths and weaknesses of STEM undergraduate education.
NIU also is launching interdisciplinary advanced-degree programs that have been developed as an outgrowth of the P-20 emphasis on STEM. The programs allow students to achieve the following degrees: