Grant helps local teachers catch up with new STEM curriculum guidelines


Imagine teaching kindergartners elements of engineering.

Or instructing third-grade students in genetics. How about explaining binary code to sixth-graders. These are just a tiny fraction of the lessons teachers are expected to deliver in kindergarten through Grade 8, under the new state Science and Technology/Engineering Curriculum Framework adopted last April.

In the younger elementary grades, these principles are being taught in addition to just helping kids learn how to read and write. It's sure as heck not easy.

But, with support from a newly procured $46,000 competitive grant, a group of local K-8 teachers won't have to feel entirely alone when it comes to figuring out how to teach the new standards.

In Berkshire County the grant, furnished by the state's Massachusetts Mathematics and Science Partnership program, convenes three lead institutions — Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Southern Berkshire Regional School District, and the Flying Cloud Institute — to use the grant funds for training and curriculum development work as approved by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The grant program is designed to foster partnerships between high need districts and/or those in need of obtaining licenses with state higher education institutions.

"Teachers, principals and administrators are all trying to figure out what to do with the new science standards," said Kerry Burke, the professional development and curriculum coordinator for Southern Berkshire. "It takes a lot of work to get these aligned with the curriculum and get teachers to be comfortable and confident in teaching it."

The new program makes room for up to 25 teachers from across the county, through an application process, to able to participate this June in a weeklong intensive professional development course at MCLA. The group will meet again in August to develop lessons for the school year and then meet six times as a professional learning network throughout the 2017-18 school year.

The funds will offset the cost of the course for the teachers by means of a stipend, professional development credits or graduate credit at MCLA.

"Teachers are such isolated folks most of the year," said Burke, noting that it's often the case in local districts that a school may have only one science teacher per grade level, and therefore no one to share or develop ideas and curriculum with.

"This program will result in a pool of well-equipped teachers who are more confident in how they approach science ... as they provide a deeper and richer experience for their students," said Jake Eberwein, MCLA's dean of Graduate and Continuing Education. "We really need to be more active in this field and less static than we have been."

Through the new summer program, teachers will be able to network and share ideas with each other with the hope that teachers return to their respective schools in districts with new ideas for high-quality instruction and science projects. The program co-coordinators have reached out to other eligible districts, including Pittsfield Public Schools and Adams-Cheshire, Farmington River, Berkshire Hills Regional schools and others in hopes to get teachers registered.

Both Burke and Eberwein said the South County-based Flying Cloud Institute rose as a natural program partner; the agency has long led professional development as well as classroom enrichment programs in STEM fields, at no cost, to schools throughout the county. More recently, this included the annual Berkshire STEM Educators Conference held on Jan. 12 at MCLA.

Flying Cloud, in its nearly 40-year history, is best known for encouraging student-led, inquiry-based exploration in the STEM fields, qualities and approaches which the new standards emphasize.

So gone are the days when a teacher had students gather around a lab table to watch a teacher demonstrate an experiment so that students could write down some observations and definitions. Today's 21st-century science demands hands-on learning, open-ended responses, individual and collaborative thinking and planning, all around challenging concepts and ideas.

But, when the standards say that elementary school students must learn principles of physics, it can feel like a monumental task for a teacher who wasn't trained as a scientist.

"A lot of teachers struggle with figure out what's appropriate for a third- and fourth-grader to learn," said Lisa Lesser, Flying Cloud's new director of STEM education. "Kids need to learn and to talk about these processes and we as teachers need to be setting up safe learning environments for them to do so."

Flying Cloud's new executive director, Maria Rundle, said to support teachers who go through the summer program, the institute will work to supplement classrooms with resident STEM educators through the institute to help model new lessons and teach new content.

"It's about meeting teachers where they're at," she said.

Reach staff writer Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.


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