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Program better equips educators to boost students’ skills in science, math

A new study is released seemingly every year that hammers home the same, sobering verdict: American students underperform in the areas of science and math compared to students in other leading countries.

Yajaira Fuentes-Tauber

Yajaira Fuentes-Tauber, a high school chemistry teacher in Texas, is one of the first 13 Ecampus graduates of the SMED School-Based master’s degree program.

It’s a national dilemma that has only shown marginal signs of improvement in recent years. Because of that, Oregon State University is confronting the challenge head-on.

Oregon State’s renowned online education division, OSU Ecampus, has partnered with the university’s College of Science and College of Education to offer a master’s degree in science and mathematics education (SMED) to K-12 teachers around the world. The objective of the SMED School-based program is to better prepare America’s youth for careers in the ever-evolving fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

“The program was created in response to those national and international studies that suggest children in the U.S. are not performing at the same level as children in other countries,” said science professor Emily van Zee, Ph.D. “There needs to be a more concerted effort to improve performance in those areas, and it really requires a global view.”

That’s where Ecampus comes in. OSU degrees online have attracted adult learners from all 50 states and more than 20 countries, and the skills gained via the SMED program are already being put to use worldwide.

Here are five ways the three-year SMED School-Based program is actively working to revitalize the American education system with a heavy dose of math and science:

1. It hooks students early

Van Zee and math professor Maggie Niess, Ph.D., are the two leaders of the program, which aims to increase an educator’s knowledge of teaching math or science beyond a standard teacher preparation program in order to enhance student achievement.

So where has the U.S. gone wrong in trying to generate student interest in math and science? Well, they’ve been hiding all the toys.

“One way to make children curious is to engage them early in exploring everyday phenomena,” van Zee said. “Our teachers use certain probe ware like motion detectors and light sensors, which aren’t new technologies but they’re new to younger students.

“They are quite capable of using these devices, and they shouldn’t have to wait until high school or college to play with these things and to generate an interest in science.”

2. SMED graduates are out in the workforce

The online SMED program started in the fall of 2008 and just graduated its first students — 13 of them — in June. Among them was Yajaira Fuentes-Tauber, a science teacher at Rivera High School in Brownsville, Texas.

As the 2011-12 school year approaches, she’s confident the tools she learned from Niess, van Zee and other OSU faculty will benefit her teenage students.

“When I tried to incorporate technology into my lesson plans before, I thought the kids wouldn’t know how to use it properly,” said Fuentes-Tauber, who teaches chemistry and previously taught physics and biology. “But now that I’m better trained to show them how to use it, I’ll be able to integrate these important skills into my classroom on a regular basis. It’s really going to enhance their learning.”

Emily Sliman

Ecampus student Emily Sliman, far left, met SMED professor Maggie Niess and her husband, Dave, in Amsterdam this summer.

3. It’s already gone global

Even Ecampus students who have yet to complete all three years of the SMED program are gaining valuable experience in the field. Emily Sliman is an OSU grad student from Alpharetta, Ga., who’s currently teaching math in Amsterdam to students in grades 7-12.

And Sarah Benjamin works in Mannheim, Germany, as a math teacher at a Department of Defense Dependents School that serves dependents of the U.S. military.

“We have great diversity in the SMED classes, with a few of us teaching abroad and the rest divided among different types of domestic education from rural to city to suburbs,” Sliman said via email. “The SMED program appears to be applicable to all of us across all these situations.”

Niess, while on vacation in Europe with husband Dave earlier this month, met up with Sliman and Benjamin separately, enabling her to put faces to the names of two students she’d only interacted with online or via telephone.

4. Even non-SMED teachers benefit

The School-based program requires its students to complete a capstone project related to professional development in their schools, meaning the enhanced skills delivered in online OSU courses get shared on a broader scale.

During the past academic year, 16 SMED teachers conducted 56 professional development sessions for colleagues in their schools and, in some cases, their districts. Many of those teachers have since taken on leadership roles, including those that are part of a concerted outreach effort to rural teachers in central Oregon.

“This shift in perspective, from being consumers of professional development to providers of P.D. through the capstone projects, is an important outcome of the K-12 program,” van Zee said.

5. Everything goes hand in hand.

When teachers acquire a more comprehensive foundation of knowledge, the trickle-down effect is that their students ultimately benefit the most.

“I was a science student, but our classes didn’t only focus on science, meaning we were able to learn more about math and technology and how all three subject areas come together,” Fuentes-Tauber said. “Those are growing fields in any profession, and it’s important for kids to be exposed to all three as much as possible. Now we’re more prepared to help our students succeed.”