Purdue to use $1.25 million NSF grant to launch sustainable energy learning program for rural Indiana teachers

March 21, 2011

Purdue professors Maureen McCann and Gabriela Weaver are leading the new Purdue STEM learning initiative, Research Goes to School, thanks to a $1.25 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Pictured, from left, are Weaver, McCann and mathematics education sophomore Jordan Huckaby, who is participating in the Research Goes to School program as a Noyce Scholar. (Purdue News Service photo/Andrew Hancock)

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Purdue University researchers are leading a program for Indiana's rural high school teachers that encourages participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to groom the next generation of leaders in sustainable energy.

The Discovery Learning Research Center in Purdue's Discovery Park is launching Research Goes to School, a five-year statewide STEM initiative supported by a $1.25 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

"Creating a format for delivering the advanced STEM research done at Purdue into Indiana high school classrooms is very important to Purdue," said Tim Sands, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost at Purdue.  

"Helping students at all levels make the connection between the classroom and Purdue’s research -- and then to the real problems our world faces -- is a critical component in developing the thinkers and leaders to solve problems in the future. Research Goes to School is building a bridge to connect high school education and research in a practical way."

Timothy Sands

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The project, part of the Innovations through Institutional Integration (I3) proposal, applies a two-tiered approach to expand interest and participation among Indiana teachers and students in the STEM disciplines and sustainable energy. The goal is to:

* Develop a model for integrating education and research by creating and supporting a professional development program that engages rural Indiana pre-service and in-service high school teachers around sustainable energy research activities.

* Use this model to establish a systemic approach that builds a stronger connection between research and education activities at the high school level.

"This innovative learning program for Indiana draws upon existing, established research efforts in STEM at Purdue," said Gabriela C. Weaver, director of the Discovery Learning Research Center and professor in Purdue's Department of Chemistry. "In year one, we will directly reach 40 rural in-service teachers, 80 pre-service rural teachers and their students. Indirectly, we will touch 400 rural in-service teachers and their students through planned outreach activities."

Funded Purdue projects providing the foundation for this program are the Woodrow Wilson STEM Goes Rural Initiative, Noyce Scholars for Preparation of Rural High School STEM Teachers, Center for Direct Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels (C3Bio), Indiana STEM (I-STEM) Resources Network, and the Purdue Rural Schools Network.

Maureen McCann, director of Purdue's Energy Center who leads C3Bio, said students who will solve the global challenges of tomorrow require a different type of education today, one that fosters interdisciplinary training and undergraduate research experiences.

"In the agricultural landscape of the Midwest, the relevance of bioenergy research is immediate and powerful for students," said McCann, a biological sciences professor. "And many rural students in Indiana have lived on or worked on farms that grow corn and soybeans."

As part of the focus on Indiana sustainable energy, Research Goes to School will develop curricular materials for integrating sustainable energy concepts with state science education standards. Weaver said rural Indiana schools represent a high-need, high-challenge arena that's been largely neglected in educational reform and research efforts. Attracting and retaining teachers is a huge challenge for rural schools because of their geographic distance from universities, lower salaries and multiple grade-subject teaching assignments.

Higher poverty rates and teacher turnover present other challenges, she said. High school students with STEM talent from rural districts also might have difficulty accessing sufficiently advanced coursework to be competitive with their peers in urban and suburban districts. "Many rural school districts also face problems such as reduced state funding and outdated infrastructure that hinder effective STEM instruction and result in lower STEM achievement," Weaver said.

Weaver said the United States now lags behind other nations in numerous measures of international competitiveness, ranging from research publications in technical areas to student performance on standardized international tests.

That's why Purdue sophomore Jordan Huckaby, a mathematics education major from Munster, Ind., is excited about participating in this program through his studies as a Noyce Scholar.

"Studies about STEM education show a lack of interest by students because the courses don't seem relevant to what they feel is important on a day-to-day basis," Huckaby said. "In reality, many of the pressing challenges in our world today will require my generation to be creative problem solvers and motivated leaders to tackle these problems."

Research Goes to School includes a strong assessment component, helping researchers gain a better understanding of what factors can impact the preparation and retention of teachers in rural schools as well as the recruitment of rural students to STEM disciplines.

As provost, Sands is the principal investigator of the NSF grant, which was co-authored by Weaver and McCann. Lisa Kirkham is program director for Research Goes to School.

Two-week intensive summer workshops for in-service and pre-service teachers will be provided, as well as two regional summits during the school year, a supportive webinar and a social networking site that provides ongoing support for educators.

The first workshop is June 13-24 at Purdue's West Lafayette campus. Teachers can earn three graduate credits in Problem-Based Learning. Stipends valued at $200 also are available for travel expenses, housing and other accommodations.

The Discovery Learning Research Center is advancing research and innovation that revolutionizes learning in the STEM disciplines and organizes undergraduate student internship programs. Research involving learning spaces, both physical and virtual, are a cornerstone of activities in the center's new building, the Hall for Discovery and Learning Research.

Since its 2003 launch, the center has generated research funding of $50 million for projects focused on the science of learning, design of innovative educational programs and development of interactive learning technologies. It also leads more than 30 projects involving 180 faculty members from every Purdue college and has established collaborations with 50 external partners.

Writer: Phillip Fiorini, 765-496-3133, pfiorini@purdue.edu

Sources: Tim Sands, 765-494-9709, tsands@purdue.edu
                  Gabriela Weaver, 765-496-3055, gweaver@purdue.edu
                  Maureen McCann, 765-496-1779, mmccann@purdue.edu
                  Lisa Kirkham, 765-494-2424, lkirkham@purdue.edu   

Related Websites:
Discovery Park