UO expertise draws first STEM equity forum in North America

Student project display

UO’s College of Education will be the first North American host of a conference that focuses on how gender and equity relate to education in science, technology, engineering and math, known as the STEM subject areas.

It’s not surprising that Eugene will be the first city outside Europe to host the conference considering the college’s decades-long reputation for teaching-methods research and innovation, from developing techniques to better help children lagging in math or reading to developing strategies to increase the ranks of underrepresented communities in STEM courses.

Jenefer Husman has been at the forefront of coordinating the conference, which will run from July 31 to Aug. 2. Husman has a long history with projects making STEM careers more inclusive, particularly in the field of engineering.

Husman comes at the issue from a psychology standpoint: What motivates people to study some topics over others? How can engineering programs support women?

The answer starts in the classroom, which is why the research is a natural fit for so many College of Education professors.

“What it really means is changing the way we teach and to overcome these barriers that occur,” she said.

Here is how some of the other College of Education faculty members’ research is tackling the issues being addressed at the conference:

Joanna Goode

Roughly 70 percent of future jobs in STEM fields are forecast to be in computer science. And of all the fields within STEM, computer science is frequently the most segregated when it comes to sex and race.

Joanna Goode is trying to address that discrepancy.

When her research showed girls were uninterested in computer science because they wanted jobs they felt benefit their communities, Goode developed a curriculum that demonstrated ways computer science jobs could do that.

When she found that teachers without much formal training in how to teach computer science were assigned to it, she developed a comprehensive professional development program.

“Teachers are key,” Goode said. “If they have an inclusive approach that can relate to kids, and can bring community examples into the classroom, wonderful things will happen. My work pivoted toward that.”

Goode is examining who teaches computer science courses, what types of teachers might be best suited for the job, as well as how to make the subject matter more welcoming to everyone.

Dane Ramshaw

Students in Dane Ramshaw’s technology education course are tasked with developing lesson plans and materials that teach kids in grades K-12 to do things like learn Chinese, program robots or compose music. But that’s only part of the assignment.

The core expectation is that these lesson plans will teach students how to think computationally, like a computer programmer, so they can more easily learn how to write code later on. Learning Chinese, programing robots and composing music are merely examples of the vehicles they choose to make coding more compelling.

Students divide themselves into groups, pick a lesson plan theme, build a website that helps kids learn about a topic, and develop a curriculum that includes computational thinking and basic coding. Students are encouraged to be creative in designing lesson plans that do not incur resource-related costs. To accomplish this, the lesson plans often call for using everything from simple paper cups to free and commercially available coding programs geared toward kids.

“Coding is the new literacy,” Ramshaw said. “If you can’t think computationally, you’re at a disadvantage. We’re doing young people a disservice if we don’t give them these tools now.”

Dean Livelybrooks

Ramshaw is not the only professor who incorporates household items into his classes as a way to teach complicated STEM topics.  A two-foot-tall clear plastic tube containing a Slinky, wires and magnets sits on Dean Livelybrooks’s desk.

This is a Slinky seismometer, and it perfectly encapsulates Livelybrooks’ work.

It’s a relatively simple device to build, and is sensitive enough to detect magnitude 6.5 or greater earthquakes worldwide. Students learn scientific and engineering concepts while constructing it and learn about earth science once it’s complete.

Livelybrooks is a science teacher and geophysicist by trade. Based in the physics department, he also explores ways to boost K-12 students’ interest in science.

Currently, he’s retraining his focus on what he sees as the next frontier: data — how to collect it, interpret it and use it. Livelybrooks wants to instill a natural inquisitiveness in students who lack it.

“If you can make the science fit into a student’s world, make it relevant, then you’ve got a much greater chance of getting them interested in it,” he said.

Jill Baxter

“We’re studying models of professional development that are designed to support math and science teachers and really shift the way we’re teaching, so that each student is engaged in doing mathematics and science,” said Jill Baxter, an associate professor who specializes in teacher education in STEM.

Baxter’s research focuses on identifying better ways to teach math and science. One program prepared a group of K-8 teachers to explore scientific concepts in local settings. Another reconfigured science kits to create opportunites to also develop mathematical thinking. 

Baxter is currently leading a grant-funded program that recruits undergraduate science majors to become high school science teachers. The grant provides science majors with summer stipends to engage in research experiences and scholarships that help cover tuition costs for their senior year and a graduate year, during which they earn a master’s degree in teaching, a teaching license and an English for speakers of other languages endorsement.

 “The Department of Education Studies has had a long-term commitment to promoting the learning of every student,” Baxter said. “Equity has been central to our research. As new faculty have been hired, we’ve been fortunate to recruit people who embrace and can extend that mission.”

Ben Clarke

While research into why some children struggle to read is familiar to most people, the same can’t be said with kids who have similar difficulties with math.

Ben Clarke’s research focuses on that and how to bring kids whose math skills lag up to the same level as their classmates.

 “When kids step through the doors of schools, there are already these vast differences in terms of their number sense, how they can think about numbers to make sense of the world,” he said.

That often traces back to how much math they are exposed to at home, often through informal interactions with caregivers and parents.

To begin narrowing those knowledge gaps before they get too wide, Clarke and his colleagues have developed screening tools that determine which students are at risk and intervention programs to begin addressing their needs to get them headed in the right direction.

“With the jobs of the future, and the increasing use of data, it’s more important (that kids overcome struggles and gaps with math) than ever,” he said.

Mary Strand Cary

One of the tools used to help address those gaps comes from Mary Strand Cary of the College of Education’s Center for Teaching and Learning.

She’s the project director for KinderTEK, an iPad math program from the Center on Teaching and Learning that helps kids who are behind in math catch up while also keeping the quick learners engaged.

Using iPads, the students answer questions, and based on their replies, KinderTEK bumps them up to the next skill or teaches them the current one. KinderTEK keeps questioning and instructing until it’s clear that they get it. The program gives them rewards—virtual stickers and photos—for advancing, or even showing persistence over time, which they put in a digital scrapbook.

“We need to help kids get a strong foundation in math because we find that five to eight years down the line, many kids are still behind if they start off behind,” Cary said. “So let’s get them caught up at the beginning. That’s the goal.”

—By Jim Murez, University Communications