Grant Supports CSUN’s Effort to Make Math and Science Fun

Students visit JPL

What if engagement in mathematics and science could always be fun? Not just for the students, but also for teachers? What if learning math and science became exciting for everyone involved?

California State University, Northridge professors Susan Belgrad and Norman Herr found themselves asking those questions.

“In California we know that by fourth grade, many children stop thinking of themselves as math achievers,” said Belgrad, professor of education and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Innovations Team leader. “We know that much of this occurs because current curricula and instruction isn’t meeting their needs. Pedagogies from the 1950s have persisted, and many elementary teachers, don’t necessarily go into teaching for the love of science or mathematics. So we are working to change that equation.”

Thanks to a continuing $35,000 grant from National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA- JPL), Belgrad and Herr a professor of science education, are leading a team of CSUN educators and JPL Education Specialists in combining forces to meet the needs of elementary and middle-school children by targeting the “next generation” of teachers.

“It’s can be seen as chicken-and-egg kind of thing,” said Belgrad. “It makes sense to begin with those who prepare teachers (incubators) and expect that it will result in golden eggs.”

Last year, Belgrad and Herr entered into negotiations with JPL and NASA and, received an initial $65,000 grant to begin the new teacher initiative that invited both credential students and teacher education faculty from four campuses.

During the summer, single and multiple subject K-8 credential students from CSUN, Cal State LA, Cal State Long Beach and Cal State Fullerton came to workshops at CSUN to get designed to get them excited about science, technology, mathematics (STEM).

“To promote STEM-integrated lesson development we embedded project-based learning (PBL), the notion that we learn best by doing, into the program,” said Belgrad. “By enabling new teachers to do this, we are essentially assuring that they lead their future students in problem identification, critical thinking, creative thinking, communication, team work and ultimately problem solving.”

Herr contributed his important tools for computer-supported collaborative science by teaching the credential students how to create their own googlesites and work with different Google applications, as tools to support student thinking, achievement and success. Then the teacher candidates visited JPL’s campus.

“We were there for three full days and climbed all over that campus to view NASA missions, learned from presentations from and conversations with their chief mission engineers and scientists.These teachers felt like they had died and gone to heaven,” said Belgrad. “After, we brought them back to campus, we coached them to work in teams as they updated their googlesites to include focus on one of the missions where they had learned about at NASA-JPL. They worked with JPL Education Specialist, Dr. Ota Lutz, who led them in a full-day of learning how to build and program Lego Mindstorm Robots. Belgrad and Herr assisted them in completing designs of their own STEM-integrated lesson.”

While some of the participating teacher candidates’ emphasis is in the sciences and mathematics, many of the credential students were general education elementary teachers.

“For our elementary people, this kind of experience is fabulous because we’re getting them ignited, and we’re helping them to see that scientific literacy and curriculum integration is going to be so important for teachers to acquire and utilize in their classrooms,” said Belgrad. “We’re helping them to understand that STEM is not just an acronym. It’s the integration of each of these subjects together with multiple literacies, social justice and global awareness.

“We really want new teachers to understand that the way we need to teach science and mathematics is to integrate it with technology and principles of engineering. This requires that students acquire social skills, communication skills, collaboration and flexibility of thinking, along with recognizing another’s idea can work as well as yours,” she said. “NASA-JPL understands this, and their mission has been to collaborate with educators across the state at the teacher-professional development level.”

With the additional $35,000, (totaling the grant money received to $100,000) Belgrad said, organizers plan on expanding the program to invite even more education students to the program.

“We want to advance their STEM knowledge and perspective in order to assure they can focus on scientific and mathematical literacy.”

One way Belgrad and Herr are doing this is by having the candidates participate in workshops hosted by NASA-JPL. “NASA-JPL constantly schedules these educators’ workshops on a regular basis. The workshops coming up are related to a mission that will be launched this month called SMAP (soil, moisture, active, passive). They will launch a robot into near-space that will orbit the earth, measuring the top two inches of soil moisture of the planet. These teachers will be able to go back to their classrooms and tell their students ‘I was there, I saw the NASA-JPL launch of this important mission!’

“We want students and teachers to know that a robust education can enable you to become anything you want to be,” she said. “If you’re intentional and you immerse yourself in the study of it, you can achieve it. That’s why we are looking for teachers to create safe, engaging, challenging and supported communities of learners.”

For more information on the grant and the program, please visit the website at