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NMSU helps more than 1,000 K-12 teachers prepare for upcoming school year

With New Mexico high school dropouts facing a 13 percent unemployment rate and an average income of $11,426, dropping out of school is no longer an option, according to the New Mexico Public Education Department.

Susan Brown poses inside the Southern New Mexico Science, Engineering, Mathematics and Aerospace Academy lab. The lab is part of the initiatives facilitated by the NMSU STEM Outreach Center. (photo by Darren Phillips)

That's part of the reason a group of more than 1,000 southern New Mexico K-12 teachers spent their summer in the classroom in order to better prepare themselves for the upcoming school year, as part of a variety of professional development courses held by New Mexico State University's College of Education.

The summer events consisted of STEM-related sessions.

"It is essential that students are motivated to enroll and complete postsecondary programs leading to highly skilled STEM careers," said Susan Brown, research associate professor and director of the NMSU STEM Outreach Center. "We are in a crisis situation pertaining to STEM education. For example, in South Korea, 37 percent of the undergraduate degrees awarded are in STEM fields; 47 percent in France, 50 percent in China and 67 percent in Singapore. Only 15 percent of U.S. undergraduate degrees are in STEM fields."

In an effort to resolve this "crisis," NMSU has teamed up with area schools districts to provide teachers engaging, hands-on approaches to teaching STEM concepts.

The Mathematically Connected Communities Leadership Institute for Teachers (MC2-LIFT) was designed to increase teachers' knowledge of K-12 mathematics through a variety of workshops.

"We try to be an advocate for kids and teachers," said Patrick Morandi, mathematics professor and principal investigator of the LIFT development team. "Our objective is to give teachers the training necessary for them to be mathematical teachers and leaders in their schools and school districts.

"This summer was our fifth year of MC2-LIFT. We have a lot of mathematical topics that we give the teachers activities on. We try to come up with activities that can be made appropriate for a full range of teachers from K-12."

For some teachers, this summer was their second year participating in the class.

"LIFT has developed me as a teacher leader thinking about pedagogy, as well as mathematically," said Christine Woods, a second grade Hillrise Elementary School teacher. "It has given me insight into a trajectory of math learning for students. We're now thinking of how students learn. We're no longer teaching skills; we're teaching concepts."

Woods, a teacher for 20 years, described the LIFT course as "life-changing."

"It's the most valuable professional development that I think teachers can experience. It's rewarding watching students develop mathematically, and being able to take students who were not very secure and prove to them that they can understand math at a level that stays with them forever. LIFT has given us the capacity to understand how students learn and how they retain their knowledge."

These sessions are made possible by a variety of sponsors, at no cost to the teacher participants. Facilitators also invited guest speakers to address the teachers, who can then incorporate the techniques they learn into their own classrooms.

Brandon Sprague, for example, plans to share what he's learned in the program with his fellow teachers at Oņate High School.

"The pedagogical practices have transformed the way I interact with students in the classroom. I know I'm deepening their knowledge," he said. "Taking what I've learned back to my colleagues has been very important to me, and something I value and pride myself on. My growth as a teacher is exponential."

Scientifically Connected Communities, a program dedicated to improving the scientific literacy of southern New Mexico students, held week-long courses that provided training in science and mathematics.

"A one-stop shop doesn't really work," said Brown, program director. "SC2 provides professional development opportunities every month throughout the academic year. We're promoting critical thinking, inquiry-based learning and problem solving, and helping teachers integrate that into the classroom. Science is the playground for math."

Before joining NMSU's College of Education, Brown was a middle school teacher for 16 years. In her 13 years at the College of Education, she has helped procure more than $7.5 million in funding for STEM outreach efforts.

With the low graduation figures in STEM, Brown added, teachers have to make their lessons creative, innovative and exciting.

"We have to offer a lot more," she said. "We're looking at what schools require of teachers, and how we fit into state and national standards. SC2 started nine years ago with about 50 teachers. This year we had 900 southern New Mexico teachers. Teachers are the key. The main thing is that they're facilitating the learning. Learning is a social event - it's brainstorming, communicating and working together. There's not just one way to solve a problem."

Other professional development opportunities this summer included Math Summer Academy for Teachers, Advanced Placement Summer Institute for Teachers, Bilingual Institute for Teachers and Math Summer Academy for Teachers.

Sessions were also held in Hobbs, N.M. and Las Vegas, N.M. All the courses were facilitated by NMSU.

"The benefit for NMSU is getting both statewide and national recognition as a leader providing professional development," Morandi said.

MC2-LIFT is funded by the National Science Foundation. Partial funding for the STEM Outreach Center is provided by local school districts.

For more information, visit http://education.nmsu.edu/projects/stem/outreach.html, or contact Susan Brown at susanbro@nmsu.edu.