November 21, 2019

Webster STEM grant gives students chance to impact high-need Missouri schools

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Webster University a $124,000 grant. The Noyce Capacity-Building is to encourage science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors to become math and science teachers in high-need Missouri K-12 schools.

According to Anton Wallner, dean of the college of arts and sciences and professor of chemistry, STEM education is a critical need in the state of Missouri.

Webster’s Educating STEM Teachers Bound for Success (WESTbound Success) is a new program created by the grant and is a capacity building program according to Wallner.

Wallner said the WESTbound Success program will work on building connections with community colleges in the St. Louis and the greater Missouri area and high-need school districts. Currently, Webster has partnerships with St. Louis Community College Forest Park and Ritenour school district.

Graphic by Joseph Schreiber.

The goal of these partnerships is to encourage high school and college students to apply for this grant and double major in a STEM or education degree to then become teachers in high-need school districts in Missouri.

“They’ll have kind of the best of both worlds,” Wallner said. “They’ll have the knowledge of the discipline, chemistry, biology, math, and they will have the education aspects. We are hoping to recruit people in the area so that underrepresented students in the STEM field, particularly women and students of color, can see people like them in the classroom and realize they have the capacity and ability to do that as well.”

Logan Furey, junior science education major, said he sees the critical need for science teachers in the state, and that is part of the reason why he is passionate about teaching science in underserved Missouri communities after he graduates.

“For me, becoming a science teacher really is about what I can do as a person for the world,” Furey said. “I really feel that I am here to serve, to improve the condition of the earth I live in, and I think I can do that best by taking scientific concepts and breaking them down for people to learn.”

Furey hopes this grant will encourage students after him majoring in STEM to become science and math teachers in Missouri.

Students who receive this grant scholarship money will be required to give back and teach in a high need school district for every year they received scholarship through the program. They can go to any school district that is designated high need by the NSF.

Assistant Professor of Physics and principal investigator (PI) on the grant, Ravin Kodikara, said there is a heightened need for STEM K-12 teachers in the state due to a lack of resources and qualified teachers in science and math.

“Something we see is STEM teachers, especially in rural Missouri, they don’t stay there for too long,” Kodikara said. “Once they start their job after some time, they get discouraged or there are financial issues, lack of motivation. We need to keep these teachers in Missouri and we think [this grant] will motivate them to stay in our state.”

The official start date of the WESTbound program is April 1. The initial planning will include revising the current curriculum to fit the needs of students enrolled in this grant program, continuing outreach with community partners and doing an analysis to make sure Webster has the capacity to apply for larger grants. The next step is to apply for a track one grant from NSF to give funding for the next five years.

Once this WESTbound program is completed in March 2020, Webster will work on applying for the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program Grant, which will provide the funding for the scholarships for STEM education majors.

Wallner estimates the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program Grant would provide Webster with roughly $1.5 million in scholarship money for students in this major program according to Wallner.

“STEM teaching is important because there is always a demand,” Kodikara said. “You can’t just get into a university and start studying to become an engineer or a doctor you have to have that background from the high school. There are thousands of students in Missouri who want to become a doctor or engineer, chemist, astronaut, but if you don’t have the right teachers in your high school, you won’t have the scores to get into university to pursue these degrees.”

Wallner said the long-term goal of this program is to have STEM education majors from Webster encourage and motivate students in high-need school districts to pursue their own degree in STEM at a university because there is a shortage of students in that area

“Science is really cool and the things that we can accomplish with science can benefit humanity, and I think that is a noble cause,” Wallner said. “We just have to do a better job of conveying that excitement and knowledge to young people. I think we do that by training people in science to get the ones that are excited about science into schools to make those young people excited about it.”

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