College of Education Fellowship Will Support STEM Education Along Border

Middle and high school students in rural areas along the U.S.-Mexico border struggle to learn STEM subjects with the same success rate as their peers in urban areas, research has shown.

Middle and high school students in rural areas along the U.S.-Mexico border struggle to learn STEM subjects with the same success rate as their peers in urban areas, research has shown.

(Photo courtesy of Alison Merwin Van Gorp/College of Education)

A University of Arizona-led fellowship program for middle and high school teachers along the U.S.-Mexico border aims to address the achievement gap in STEM education for their students.

The Noyce Border Fellowship Program, made possible by a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, will give 14 exemplary STEM teachers $11,000 a year – plus space and training – for up to five years to build curricula for teaching in the field at two sites in Cochise County.

The fellowships, which are under development, will be administered in partnership with the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program, which provides funding to encourage college students studying STEM disciplines to become K-12 teachers.

The result, program leaders hope, will reduce the achievement gap that rural students face in learning science, technology, engineering and math subjects, said Etta Kralovec, a professor in the Department of Teaching, Learning and Sociocultural Studies in the College of Education and the grant's principal investigator.

Research has shown that middle and high school students in rural areas along the border struggle to learn STEM subjects with the same success rate as their peers in urban areas, said Kralovec, who lives in Bisbee and has studied teacher preparedness in border communities for more than two decades. That's largely due to fewer learning opportunities outside the classroom, such as science-related field trips, and fewer resources for teachers to build valuable skills.

"If you're a teacher in Phoenix, you can take your students to the Arizona Science Center or the Children's Museum of Phoenix once a month," Kralovec said. "There's public transportation to these places, and there are robust educational programs for students. But in rural areas, there aren't those kinds of opportunities, and we believe that that lack of informal STEM opportunities contributes to the achievement gap that you see on the border."

The fellowship program will establish two initial field stations in Cochise County as field trip destinations: one at a recharge station along the San Pedro River, managed by the county's Department of Engineering and Natural Resources, the other at a site owned by Freeport-McMoRan, which the mining company is returning to wildlife habitat. The sites could be ready for students and teachers to use by 2021.

The county and Freeport-McMoRan are partners in the fellowship. Also involved in the project is the NSF's Rural Activation and Innovation Network, a grant program now in its final stages that was designed to increase STEM experiences in rural areas throughout Arizona, including in Cochise County.

The program also aims to address the dwindling number of teachers in Arizona, particularly in rural areas. Teacher salaries in Arizona, Kralovec said, can't compete with those in the private sector, especially for recent college graduates with degrees in fields such as biology or engineering.

"You can get a job that pays twice as much as teaching with those degrees," Kralovec said.

Fellows will also receive professional development opportunities to build their leadership skills through the Sin Fronteras Professional Learning Community, which is coordinated by the College of Education's Borderlands Education Center.

"Providing STEM teachers in Arizona, particularly those along the U.S.-Mexico border, the resources to help them and their students succeed directly supports the University of Arizona's mission as a Hispanic-Serving Institution and as a global land-grant university," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. "I look forward to seeing the results from this fellowship program, and I thank the National Science Foundation for its support."

Program leaders are still determining the selection criteria for the fellows, which are expected to be announced in the fall, Kralovec said. The fellowship is not limited to teachers in Cochise County public school districts, but many will likely be from that area, she added.

"This project engages STEM teachers in these communities in collaborative projects that will provide new STEM experiences for their students while allowing the teachers to develop their leadership skills through collaborating with teachers in other schools and with others throughout their communities," said Bruce Johnson, dean of the College of Education. "The result will be more powerful STEM experiences for secondary students and teachers who are taught by master teachers actively involved in a network of education, business and community dedicated to educational excellence."

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