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ISU Grant Will Help Prepare STEM Teachers In High-Needs Schools

Willy Hunter
Illinois State University
Willy Hunter, a professor in ISU’s Department of Chemistry.";

Illinois State University will play an even bigger role in making sure school districts with underserved students have access to top-tier K-12 STEM teachers, thanks to a new grant.

A team led by ISU professor Willy Hunter recently received a $2.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation to support STEM teacher development.

“In high-need schools, there are tons of talented and capable people who have poor experiences in math and science classes, so we lose those people,” said Hunter. “Those people don't become engineers, doctors, technicians, or computer scientists. We have a shortage of those people in our society, so if we don't do a better job of helping teachers in high-need districts provide relevant science and math for their students, we lose.”

"Those people don't become engineers, doctors, technicians, or computer scientists."

The grant will fund three years of summer professional development for STEM teachers in addition to the annual Midwest Regional Robert Noyce Conference.

Hunter said upon receiving the grant, he became very hopeful for the future. 

“There are about 400 different universities that have these scholarship programs and each one of them is trying different methods to help train and retain teachers in those high-needs schools, so we're excited about the work that we're going to do,” said Hunter, a professor in ISU’s Department of Chemistry.

Collaborating with universities in Missouri, Kansas, and southern Illinois, Hunter and members of Illinois State’s Center for Mathematics, Science, and Technology (CeMaST) will spearhead professional development for the NSF’s regional Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program.

Making strides to increase the number of professionals in STEM fields, Hunter said he is grateful for the grant because it will allow his team to expand its working network.

“We've had a similar project for the past three years, but it has only been involved in hosting a conference and bringing in maybe 250 teachers at a time. This time, we will continue to host annual conferences while also providing professional development for teachers throughout the year with lots of weeklong, five-day, and two-day workshops for teachers as well,” said Hunter.

“Our annual conferences and professional development are all about sharing the lessons learned by these various projects and help to disseminate the best practices that we find,” he said.

Some college students avoid STEM fields, despite the higher earning power those jobs can bring. One reason: STEM fields are perceived to be difficult. About half of adults (52%) say the main reason young people don’t pursue STEM degrees is they think these subjects are too hard, according to a Pew Research Center survey from 2018.

Hunter said it is important to change that narrative.

“I think people are intrinsically curious and interested in understanding the world around them, but I think they stray away because they are taught in ways and taught things that are not meaningful to them. They're taught all sorts of really elegant mathematics, really elegant science, but it has no relevance to them,” Hunter said. “That's why the focus of our project is to find culturally relevant math and science teaching practices and to have those be valuable for students.”

To change how people perceive STEM fields, Hunter said there must be a change in method. 

“If we want people to do things that are different from what they're doing, we have to support them in doing those things differently. They have to find out where they are, and they may need support because it's not the way I was taught math and science and I suspect it's not the way others were taught either. So, if we want people to do things differently, we need to support them in doing that.”

Overall, Hunter hopes by implementing the new developments for the field, the communities surrounded will be more educated and open to pursuing such careers. 

“I would like to have a population that is more scientifically literate, more passionate about dealing with issues of climate change, issues of food scarcity, issues of reproductive health, and all those sorts of things,” he said. “Having more people involved in those disciplines and working on problems that are important to them helps us look on these other local, regional, national, and global problems.”

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Tiffani Jackson is a reporting intern at WGLT and a student at Illinois State University's School of Communication. She started working at WGLT in summer 2019.
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