NASA, JPL and CSUN Team Up For STEM Education Push

  • CSUN senior Holli Coleman sits in front of one of the Mars Rover vehicles housed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The future is now. People may disagree because of the lack of flying cars, but the future promised in so much of popular culture over the past 50 years is here. Mass-produced flat-screen TVs, real-time video conferencing from your hand-held phone, the phone itself that can do everything that used to take up Saturday afternoons — these are all a reality thanks to giant leaps in science and technology.

And while the earth’s population enjoys the iPhones and Priuses of today, there is a question about the way the United States is tracking in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) training for the future. The World Economic Forum ranks the United States 52nd in the quality of mathematics and science education, and 27th among developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving undergraduate degrees in science or engineering. California State University, Northridge is looking to boost that outlook by teaming up with NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to teach future educators the best way to hook young learners into the world of STEM.

For two days in June and five days in July, the three institutions hosted the JPL-NASA CSUN Pre-Service Teacher Institute, or PSTI, an intensive experience where 35 students — future teachers from CSUs across the Los Angeles area, including Northridge, Long Beach, Fullerton and Los Angeles — were exposed to problem-based learning, mathematics, science, technology and engineering-enrichment activities. Along with faculty from CSUN, there were also instructors there from CSULA, CSU Long Beach and CSU Fullerton during the training.

The event had a simple goal, said CSUN education professor and STEM Innovations Team Leader Susan Belgrad: create scientifically literate citizens by preparing more teachers who have deep pedagogical content knowledge in science, mathematics, engineering and technology.

“For more than a decade, science has had minimal attention as a subject area in the elementary school years,” Belgrad said. “For many students, science curriculum has not begun in earnest until the fourth grade. Similarly, many of the teachers we prepare do not have ample time to lead well-developed science lessons in which they exercise their own scientific literacy. … The focus needs to be on preparing highly effective, engaged teachers from kindergarten through high school.”

“The PSTI at JPL was so eye opening,” said CSUN senior Holliston Coleman, who’s majoring in Child and Adolescent Development. “I had heard about the Mars Rovers Spirit, Opportunity and now Curiosity but it’s a completely different experience to get to go to building after building and see the process of how rovers are actually put together, where they are put together, from beginning to end by the actual engineers who worked on it! This experience made me fall in love with engineering and our immense universe!”

The urgent need to seed the next generation inspired NASA’s participation, not only with the venue, but with a $100,000 grant to kick off the program. On June 26 and 27, the group of future STEM educators gathered at CSUN for orientation, development of their own websites, an hour-long Bianchi Planetarium presentation from professor Jan Dobias and a project-based learning lesson led by JPL’s Ota Lutz and Belgrad. Along with Lutz and Belgrad, CSUN education professor Norm Herr, education lecturer Steve Holle and JPL Lab Educational Office deputy manager David Seidel helped guide the group.

From July 23-25, the group headed to Pasadena for some onsite learning at JPL on the campus of the California Institute of Technology. There, they focused on cooperative learning strategies, project-based learning frameworks, formative assessment and online data analysis strategies using Google Apps. They also worked to collaboratively design STEM-integrated lessons with peers in their PSTI cohort. The lessons can be used during future student-teaching assignments, including working with Lego MindStorms Robots purchased with the grants to help them appeal to K-8 students.

“These students will essentially become trailblazers,” Belgrad said. “They will understand how robotics activities and the engineering design process on which this is based requires the exercise of mental math strategies, collaboration, communication and problem solving. … This will inspire and energize faculty in the K-12 schools to which they are assigned to see the promise of such activities.”

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