UI collaborates with rural schools to encourage students to take up STEM classes

The University of Iowa is partnering with schools located in rural areas to educate students and encourage them to take up STEM classes.


Joseph Cress

The Old Capitol is seen on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017.

Aadit Tambe, News Reporter

The University of Iowa has taken up collaborating with rural schools to help educate and encourage students to take STEM classes and pursue careers in STEM fields.

The program, called STEM Excellence and Leadership, serves students in 10 school districts in rural areas all over Iowa. It aims to not only increase students’ aspirations in math and science but also to increase their knowledge and abilities in STEM fields.

The program is structured to target high-achieving students in fifth to eighth grades, said Lori Ihrig, the supervisor of curriculum and instruction at the UI Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development.

She said the program was originally funded by the Jack Cooke Foundation and is now funded by a grant through the National Science Foundation. The program is in its fourth year.

“You can compare increasing students’ interests and aspirations to running a marathon,” Ihrig said. “If you motivate and excite people to run a marathon, but don’t prepare them for that task, you can imagine how they will not be successful.”

It is important to provide students with opportunities to increase their knowledge in STEM, especially in rural areas, she said.

“In rural school districts, students don’t have the same opportunities available to them because of rurality,” Ihrig said. “[This is] an extracurricular program that operates mostly out of the school day with students taking math and science courses before and after school.”

Students spend a total of 96 hours a school year in the courses, she said.

The selection process identifies high performers, or students in the 85th percentile, she said. These students are invited to take a more challenging assessment to start the program.

In addition to these students, teachers and parents can nominate other students who they think are fit the program, Ihrig said.

“Collecting all of those data together, the district determines who this program may be a good fit for and sends invitations to participate in the program,” she said.

STEM Excellence and Leadership shows educators and students in rural areas what is possible, said Duhita Mahatmya, a research scientist in the College of Education, in an email to The Daily Iowan.

“By providing advanced math and science curriculum and engaging students outside of the classroom and school day, STEM Excellence and Leadership has helped to improve the math and science achievement of rural, middle-school students, and rural educators’ ability to support their students and prepare them for STEM majors and careers,” she said.

Clinical Professor Mark McDermott, STEM outreach coordinator for the UI, administered professional development for the educators of the program. Teachers from the 10 school districts come to the UI every summer for training and professional development.

“We talked about ways that teachers could use general effective teaching approaches to science in and out of classes,” he said. “One of the things we want to do [at] the UI is help facilitate opportunities for students across the state — whether in a rural location or urban location.”

The program aims to help the students situated in rural areas by offering opportunities to explore STEM careers, McDermott said.

“This is a good example of opportunities that a be created in a way that research and outreach can come together at the UI,” Ihrig said.

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