September 5, 2014

Future educators are reaching for the stars through a NASA-sponsored educational development program.

Student at Wallops Flight Facility Launch PadA total of 32 rising college juniors studying education were selected to participate in the inaugural inSTEP program sponsored by the Virginia Space Grant Consortium (VSGC) and fourteen higher education institutions in the Commonwealth. Among the 32 participating, six are students of Longwood University. Five of the six selected Longwood University students are completing their coursework through New College Institute (NCI): Jennifer Compton, Alyssa Dalton, Crystal Draper, Nicole Kessler, and Tiffany Neamo.

“I was proud to be selected to this program as a non-traditional student. We were learning and collaborating alongside younger, traditional students from Virginia Tech, University of Virginia, and colleges across the state,” said Draper.

inSTEP (Integrative STEM for Pre-service Teachers) is a two-year program designed to develop knowledge and generate best teaching practices in the fields of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) among pre-service teachers interested in instructing grades 4-8. Ultimately, these rising educators will be prepared to deliver high-quality STEM instruction and then share resources and best practices to the schools within their communities. A stated goal of the inSTEP program is to increase the number and proportion of individuals, particularly underrepresented minorities, who complete teacher pre-service programs with the ability to increase students’ understanding of STEM.

The selected participants recently completed the inSTEP Summer Academy, an 11-day, intensive training and educational camp hosted at NASA Langley Research Center and NASA Wallops Flight Facility. During the academy, participants received innovative instruction from leaders in STEM-related academia as well as behind-the-scenes tours into the workings of NASA. Instructional workshops included topics such as the engineering design process, energy transfer, astronomy, earth science, robotics, classroom management, and innovative project-based learning.

“The highlight for us had to be seeing an actual rocket on the launch pad just days before it was sent into space,” said Neamo.  

While at the academy, the students were also faced with daily design challenges to test their ability to think creatively and teach multiple, testable skills through these challenges. “We found these activities to be very enjoyable, engaging ways to learn,” said Draper.

At the conclusion of their training, inSTEP participants practiced their newly acquired skills by providing instruction at day programs in underserved communities in the Tidewater region of Virginia. “The program encouraged the pre-service teachers to go back and let students know that failure is ok because you can learn from your failures. Using trial and error is all part of the STEM design process,” said Jennifer Compton, student of NCI and Longwood University.

In addition to their experiences at the inSTEP Summer Academy, participants will commit more than 200 hours to cultivate their understanding of Earth Systems Science and other science concepts in the context of STEM education and the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL). They are also required to maintain an online portfolio accompanied by mentors that have been selected as Master Teachers from a cadre of experienced STEM educators. Participants will present their experiences at state level education conferences. Each inSTEP student is awarded a $5000 scholarship to participate in the program along with a variety of free resources to carry on to their future classrooms. These resources include a digital learning network and support system provided by NASA.

“I appreciate that the Master Teachers are open and willing to help as we learn how to apply STEM techniques within our classrooms. They have shown us how to think creatively and apply these techniques to subjects beyond math and science,” said Dalton.  

Dr. Pam Randall, faculty and program director of the Longwood University education programs at NCI, added, “We often think of STEM as only involving math, but it is the opportunity to create anything – a drawing, an idea, or a belief system. inSTEP gives our students the opportunity to experience master teaching techniques so that they will be better prepared once they are given their own classroom.”