Release Date: October 21, 2014
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Educators in the Niagara Falls City School District knew they could build the perfect state-of-the-art lab space with flashy, high-tech devices and a STEM curriculum resembling traditional teaching methods. That alone would have been enough to be a showpiece in their district.
But the administrators and teachers in these new STEM classrooms wanted more. They wanted an environment to teach science, technology, engineering and math classes that reflected what students would find in the outside world.
They wanted something that would reinvent how science, technology, engineering and math were taught to students who wanted courses that would help them fit into the furiously changing world and not just get by on some standardized test.
In short, they wanted to lead the charge for adopting a STEM education model for students of the 21st century.
This is where the University at Buffalo’s Graduate School of Education came in: Taking advantage of a few key pre-existing relationships, Niagara Falls teachers and administrators joined intellectual forces with UB experts — in this case Randy Yerrick, professor and associate dean for interprofessional education and engagement in the Department of Learning and Instruction.
Yerrick, known for his innovative teaching and implementation of technology in the STEM classroom, brought the elements Niagara Falls was looking for. As an Apple Distinguished Educator, Yerrick has been called upon to support STEM efforts in hundreds of schools in more than 20 states across the country, as well as in more than a dozen schools in Singapore, Hong Kong and China. He specializes in connecting tools, teaching strategies and curricula to solve real-world problems in science.
Working with a Niagara Falls team, Yerrick was able to share ideas on the design of STEM learning spaces, modernize curricula and recommend appropriate teaching strategies to help make the Niagara Falls STEM initiative a strong example of community collaboration.
The Niagara Falls STEM team includes Ed Maynard, a district instructional coach; Lynne Tompkins, team principal at Niagara Falls High School and STEM coordinator for the NFCSD; and Bhawna Chowdhary, STEM teacher leader and a Yerrick protégé at UB. Together, the Niagara Falls team has collaborated with National Grid, Niagara Falls Medical Center, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, UB and other community stakeholders to bring this more-than-two-year vision to its public launch this semester. High school teachers and administrators also say the program would not have come together without the overwhelming support of Niagara Falls Superintendent Cynthia Bianco.
“We could have built a very nice lab with a lot of bells and whistles, and decorated it in a nice and pretty way, and run it like a normal, everyday high school science class,” says Maynard.
“But we wanted to get partners, bring professionals in here. We wanted more ‘traction’ with the community and the outside world. We wanted those lessons in the classroom to be reflective of what was happening in the outside world.”
And Yerrick, with his connections to UB’s Graduate School of Education, was able to deliver.
“Science educators at UB have a long history of training STEM leaders in this area,” he says. “We have led research and training that has helped faculty and staff in all kinds of formal and informal contexts. We have graduates in the museum, the zoo, in pharmacy, industry and even other local higher education institutions.
“Bhawna Chowdary is just one of our many doctoral candidates who are applying what they have learned at UB to lead the charge in enacting the Next Generation Science Standards,” he says.
The Niagara Falls STEM classrooms — part of a nearly $67 million district-wide, three-year capital project called “Inventing Tomorrow” — are evidence of the university’s strong commitment to work with the local community in educational contexts that cross grade levels, campuses and disciplines.
“We in GSE are honored to be a part of the steps the Niagara Falls City School District is making toward educating the next generation of students and developing STEM models that connect directly to the lives of children,” says Yerrick.
“GSE has faculty in all four of our departments who are actively collaborating in successful partnerships all across Western New York. From the Niagara Falls schools, to the Buffalo city schools, to Williamsville and all over the region, we have active service, research and training projects engaging in the community.”
Niagara Falls STEM classrooms, which exist in all 11 K-12 schools throughout the district, have earned rave reviews. This includes the toughest critics of all: the students.
“I love them,” Niagara Falls High School 11th-grader Sierra Spain said during an interview with a local news station. “I took it because I knew that this would be something I was interested in. Rather than a single science and math, it's applying both.”
Her full interview is available here: http://jamestown.twcnews.com/content/news/773471/stem-classrooms-at-niagara-falls-school-district-unveiled--meant-to-broaden-horizons/
“Everything that we’re going to be doing here is very interesting because I want to go into the medical field when I get older,” says Michael Saunders, another 11th-grade student at Niagara Falls High School.
“They gave us assignments that allow us to intern at the hospitals, and I’m very grateful I go to this class.”
The curricula that was developed in collaboration with National Grid, Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center, Roswell Park Cancer Institute — and with Yerrick’s gentle guidance — is full of the kinds of innovative approaches that make a difference in preparing students for the real world, instructors say.
Students study problem-solving learning tied to real-world examples. One STEM classroom examines helmet safety among football players. Those organizing the course recruited hospital experts to talk about traumatic brain injuries and helmet designs. The emphasis was on how real scientists use their knowledge of the brain and state-of-the-art sensors to measure the damage from sports contact.
Another teaching unit is about gel electrophoresis. Students examine DNA among cancer patients. School administrators brought in scientists from Roswell Park to show students how professionals approach a problem.
“The overall appearance of the classrooms is very different from anything we have in the rest of the building,” says Maynard. “There is a certain level of professionalism. The assignments are more like the real world that classic, traditional ones based out of a textbook.
“We want people to know we are reaching out to the outside world,” he says. “This is not your parents’ science class.”