February 2011
February 08, 2011

Union keeps high tech in forefront

Author: Greg Munno
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Westhill High School science teacher Jean Pounder, a member of the Westhill District Education Association, discusses results of an exercise designed to familiarize students. Photo by Lauren Long.

Whoever coined the expression "easy as pie" clearly has never been in Jean Pounder's shoes.

Pounder, a science teacher at Westhill High School in suburban Syracuse and a member of the Westhill District Education Association, organizes massive bake sales to raise money for an innovative curriculum that includes a field trip to Arizona State University, where students work with scientists to take pictures of Mars.

"People could order pies for themselves, or donate the pies to charity," Pounder said. "We sent 15-20 cases of pies to the Rescue Mission alone."

Curricula like Pounder's Mars Student Imaging Project are garnering attention as educators, business leaders and government officials look to strengthen science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education so students can learn the skills essential for the 21st century.

Executing a dynamic, hands-on, integrated STEM curriculum, as Pounder will attest, takes substantial effort, resources and appropriate measurements of achievement.

For the most part, STEM disciplines have been spared severe budget cuts, unlike the arts, humanities and other essential programs that have suffered at both the K-12 and higher education levels.

And, New York's Race to the Top award includes funding to expand STEM education in low-performing schools and for students who are typically underrepresented in STEM fields.

Still, educators are not immune to obstacles to fully implementing STEM initiatives — obstacles that NYSUT continues to identify, and ultimately remedy.

"What's extraordinary to me is the commitment required from teachers to implement innovative programs regardless of discipline," said NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira, who leads Research and Educational Services for the union. "It shouldn't have to be a fight for teachers to do their jobs, but too often it is."

NYSUT is working to win teachers time to plan lessons, to meet as teams and to collaborate, Neira said, and to ensure that teachers are fairly compensated for that effort.

In Westhill, Pounder and other teachers benefitted when the union, led by Gregory McCrea, helped negotiate team time into the teachers' daily schedules.

That's particularly important for STEM, since a successful program requires an integrated approach that brings various disciplines together to solve complex, real-world problems, according to Margaret Ashida, the project director for the Empire State STEM Learning Network.

An example is NYSUT's support of efforts such as Tech Valley High School in Rensselaer, a "project-based" learning center that straddles two BOCES districts. It's designed to inspire a collaborative between various disciplines, as well as higher education and the private sector.

The school, which opened in 2007, has received much attention as the nation searches for successful models of STEM education. NYSUT worked with the stakeholders to ensure Tech Valley did not siphon resources from other schools in the area and that it continued to meet all requirements of a public school.

State tests are another obstacle to successful STEM teaching. They don't reflect current best practices, which emphasize applying diverse knowledge over the regurgitation of specific knowledge, said Terry McSweeney, an assistant in NYSUT's Research and Educational Services.

"At the high school level, the tests reinforce the 'teaching in silos' model educators have been trying to move away from in favor of a more integrated approach," said McSweeney, a former high school math teacher. "At the elementary level, tests tend to favor the teaching of math and ELA skills over science, which many studies have shown does not get enough time in the elementary curriculum."

Teacher training and education can help find ways around these deficiencies in the state's testing regime. They are essential. National studies (most recently from the National Center for Education Statistics) have found that the highly qualified teachers needed to teach STEM effectively are in short supply.

"Giving teachers the tools to successfully implement STEM education has been at the heart of several NYSUT programs," Neira said.

This mindset led to NYSUT's support of this summer's inaugural STEM Institute and the development of its SEMI High Tech U, which started in Albany four years ago. NYSUT is currently developing a plan to expand it to other parts of the state, McSweeney said.

Meanwhile, Pounder, the Westhill science teacher, has just wrapped up another pie sale — and is looking forward to her return to Arizona State with a new group of students.

"We've got a great group of students this year who have already started teleconferencing with the scientists at ASU," Pounder said. "It's amazing how much time the professors are willing to give our kids."

Greg Munno is a freelance writer from Auburn. He covered the STEM Institute for NYSUT United last summer.