NSF grant to fund teacher-ed program focusing on environmental projects as learning aids for science

Posted February 24th, 2009 at 7:06 pm.

Bryn Mawr Professor of Mathematics Victor Donnay

Co-Principal Investigator Victor Donnay is a professor of mathematics at Bryn Mawr

Solving the environmental problems facing the world today will require investment in research and development of green technologies, many scientists and environmentalists argue.

Professor of Mathematics Victor Donnay points out a corollary to that proposition: research requires researchers. The urgency of our environmental problems is one more reason, Donnay says, that improving science and math education is critical to the public welfare.

As it happens, Donnay and some of his colleagues in the Math and Science Partnership of Greater Philadelphia have a theory: asking students to apply math and science skills to real-world problems that interest them is one of the most effective pedagogical strategies teachers can employ.

How can teachers learn to harness the passion many young people feel about environmental conditions in their own communities and direct it toward learning science and math?

That’s the question Donnay and colleagues from other local colleges and universities are exploring with a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

Over the next year and a half, the group will hammer out the details of the proposed Greater Philadelphia Environment, Energy, and Sustainability Science Teacher Leader Institute, which will offer science and math teachers in the Delaware Valley a structured curriculum in both the content matter of sustainability science and in project-based, service-learning pedagogy.

“Graduates of the program will teach math and science through sustainability projects,” Donnay says, “because hands-on learning gets students more interested in math and science.”

“Some of the inspiration for this came from projects we’ve done here at Bryn Mawr,” Donnay says, citing as an example an independent study completed by biology major Emily McGlynn ’09  under the supervision of environmentalist Joanna Underwood ’62. Her research was a critical factor in persuading Philadelphia officials to reduce the city’s carbon burden by investing in sanitation trucks that run on clean-burning natural gas.

McGlynn later helped design an environmental advocacy course now offered at Bryn Mawr.

“Students take away more from a course when they feel their work having an impact,” Donnay says. “That’s deeper learning than what you get from reading a book.”

According to Donnay, the consortium hopes that the institute will have a ripple effect that goes beyond the teachers who participate in it.

“We will recruit experienced, successful teachers who are prepared to be leaders to participate in the program,” Donnay adds, noting that the MSPGP’s work over the past several years has allowed it to identify influential teachers and key opinion shapers in several regional school districts.

“Through their training, participants will gain strong content knowledge of their subjects, but they will also get professional development in leadership skills so they’ll go back to their home districts and encourage other teachers to adopt this teaching strategy.”

One approach that is especially promising, Donnay notes, is the use of a school’s own facilities as objects of study. The science and environmental-studies programs at Bryn Mawr have developed a productive relationship with the College’s Facilities Services Department, he says, as partners in monitoring the pond that was constructed on campus with a “Growing Greener Grant” from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Designed to ameliorate pollution problems caused by stormwater runoff, the pond has proven to be a valuable educational resource for students in Bryn Mawr chemistry, biology, and environmental-studies courses.

“There are all sorts of potential math and science projects related to school facilities that could result in positive environmental impacts, and school districts have an interest in them because they could save money,” Donnay says.

The list of the program’s supporters is long: in addition to Bryn Mawr, the core partners are Widener University (which currently offers several degree programs in education through the doctoral level and will play the lead role in the effort), Delaware County Community College, Lincoln University, Philadelphia University, and the Haverford Township School District.

Additional partners include the Center for Social and Economic Research and the Institute for Educational Excellence (3E Institute), both at West Chester University; the Delaware Valley Industrial Resource Center; the Energy Coordinating Agency; U.S. E.P.A. Region 3 Office of Innovation; the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement and its SENCER program, Pennsylvania Campus Compact; the Philadelphia Higher Education Network for Neighborhood Development; Project Kaleidoscope; the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia; and the 21st Century Partnership for STEM Education.

“No single one of these institutions could host a program like this over the long term,” Donnay explains, “so our idea was to pool resources and host the program jointly, as a sort of regional mega-university.”

According to the proposal, teachers participating in the program would

  • improve their science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) content knowledge in areas critical to human environmental sustainability
  • improve their use of project based/service learning and scientific pedagogies in their teaching
  • engage in real-world sustainability problem solving in an externship with a local business, non-profit or government organization that is active in the newly emerging green economy
  • develop important leadership skills as change agents in their schools to improve student interest, learning, and engagement in STEM education.

The current grant will fund the design of the curriculum and logistical planning; in a year and a half, the group will apply for a second, larger grant to fund the institute itself.

The institute will likely operate as a summer program with its hub on the Widener campus, but the group is also exploring the idea of a core curriculum with several different tracks, each of which is taught at one of the member institutions. Whether it will function as a degree-granting program or a certificate program is among the many questions planners are now addressing.

“We’d like to develop a structure flexible enough to allow  other universities, and maybe even individual faculty members, to participate,” Donnay says.

The NSF hopes that the institute can serve as a model for other, similar programs around the country.

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