UO professors focus on secondary STEM studies

Students from Hermiston High School’s science club stepped into Willamette 100 recently … and what appeared to be a Pink Floyd laser light show.

After dimming the lights in the lecture hall, physics instructor Stanley Micklavzina cranked up Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” on a laptop hooked up to speakers. Then, using a fog machine and laser pointers, he and assistant Ben Wright put on a dazzling light show, shooting the lasers through the smoke to illustrate how light is only visible once it interacts with the fog particles.

“It’s called the weirdness of light!” Micklavzina yelled out.

“Come to the University of Oregon and study physics,” Ben added. “You’ll love it, I promise!”

The mood was light but the situation is serious. The demonstration illustrated the university’s commitment to reversing a national trend and engaging secondary students in the STEM studies — science, technology, engineering and math, said Dean Livelybrooks, a senior physics instructor with the university.

Livelybrooks is co-director of a new partnership between the UO and the Eugene school district to make STEM studies come to life for secondary students. Under the Title IIB Math/Science Partnership, the Oregon Department of Education recently awarded $450,000 to the university and the school district for a two-year program to improve the content knowledge and skills of teachers to boost students’ interest and performance in STEM studies.

The educators are trying to address a troubling picture of U.S. students’ performance in STEM studies.

According to the 2010 Report to the President on K-12 Education in STEM, U.S. elementary and secondary students’ performance in science and mathematics consistently place the United States in the middle of the pack or lower, internationally. Less than one-third of U.S. eighth graders show proficiency in mathematics and science and even those who are proficient — including minority students and women — are gravitating toward other professions.

“Schools often lack teachers who know how to teach science and mathematics effectively — and who know and love their subject well enough to inspire their students,” the report said. “As a result, too many American students conclude early in their education that STEM subjects are boring, too difficult, or unwelcoming, leaving them ill-prepared to meet the challenges that will face their generation, their country and the world.”

The partnership entails professional development for teachers from Eugene, Bethel, Springfield, Crow, Junction City and Creswell school districts, spanning grades 5-10.

Teachers will develop curricula by working with industry and government STEM workers from biotechnology company Life Technologies and electric vehicle maker Arcimoto, both of Eugene, as well as Lane Transit District, the city of Eugene, the Eugene Water and Electric Board and university faculty.

Students will tackle classroom projects in the context of real-world problems. Professional engineers, scientists, technicians and analysts will help with school assignments that link directly to their own work.

“The best possible scenario is to have middle and high school students experiencing and learning science and engineering in the context of how it is practiced by scientists and engineers,” Livelybrooks said. “That scenario includes having university science and math majors in those K-12 classrooms whenever possible, serving as positive role models, including for underrepresented groups.”

Chris Castillero, an associate director of curriculum and professional development for the Eugene district, said the grant exemplifies the creative ways in which educators are ensuring strong instruction in a time of reduced resources. Classroom projects will cover topics such as computers, hybrid cars, water quality, DNA structures — even the structural integrity of the schools where students attend class.

“We would hope that it would lead students to a career path in the STEM jobs,” Castillero said. “We don’t want to see those jobs go overseas more than they already are. We’re reinforcing that STEM is an important aspect of the educational system in this country.”

Mark Freed, mathematics education specialist for the Oregon Department of Education, said the grant takes a new approach to the STEM studies by incorporating industry professionals in the development of classroom content.

“There seems to be a disconnect between what employers are asking for and what schools are preparing students to do,” Freed said. “We’re hoping to pull in employers so we can ask, ‘what do you need your employees to do — and how can we prepare our students to be potential employees in the future?’”