North Central News

Minding the Gap: Grant funding addresses broad need for STEM teachers

Laura Pohl

Mar 18, 2021

A grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to North Central College represents several important firsts and lays the groundwork for significant additional grant support in the future.

The $75,000 grant supports the initial phases of a plan to prepare more high school teachers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. It represents the College’s first grant from the NSF in nearly 30 years, which accepted the College’s application on its first attempt—a rarity in grant submissions to the foundation.

The funds will be used to build capacity and partnerships, with the end goal of preparing STEM teachers who are equity-minded and willing to teach in high-need schools. Equity-minded educators are committed to successful outcomes for students of all racial and socio-economic backgrounds. 

“There’s a shortage of STEM teachers nationwide and in Illinois,” said Alicia Okpareke, associate professor of education and principal investigator (PI). “We’re also seeking to increase teachers’ capacity to work with diverse student populations as well as improve the achievement in STEM subjects of K-12 students.”

She pointed out that the student population of the United States is the most diverse it’s ever been but “we tend to recruit and retain teachers from the majority status.” 

The grant resulted from a collaboration between Okpareke and Lindsay Wexler, assistant professor of education, with faculty in the sciences: ChandreyeeMitra, assistant professor of biology, and Susan Kempinger, assistant professor of physics. All serve as co-PIs on the grant proposal and worked together during summer 2020 to develop the proposal. 

Diversity in STEM is incredibly important for both students and the scientific field,” said Mitra. “A diverse scientific community is not only important for reasons of fair access to learning and social equity, but also because a more diverse community always results in a greater variety of perspectives, ideas and values, which in turn results in better science.”

The first phase of the project includes building partnerships and pathways for students in science disciplines to become teachers—and succeed in their careers after graduation. 

The implementation includes:  

  • Providing anti-racism training to field supervisors; 
  • Developing more accessible pathways for students double majoring in education and science—particularly chemistry and physics;  
  • Expanding pathways in science education for diverse students transferring from community colleges;  
  • Collaborating with high-need schools to recruit high school students to North Central and, later, as sites for clinical placements of education candidates;  
  • Building connections with national laboratories and other organizations to provide new teachers with contacts in the STEM community;  
  • Training candidates in use of equitable instructional strategies; and  
  • Supporting students and teachers with mentorship, using the Teach First/Cardinal First models.  

We know that by supporting new teachers through their first three years they are more likely to persist,” said Okpareke. “Mentors can provide a sounding board for questions, planning and support.”  

By fall 2022, the team can submit the results of this preparation work and request an additional $1.2 million  from the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program for students from under-represented groups. 

“Recruiting and retaining underrepresented groups into the STEM education field is really important work, and this grant gives us a chance to invest time and resources into creating pathways and systems of support,” added Wexler.