NIU to boost secondary science, math education

Photo of a student and professor working in a science labNIU this semester is launching a new Center for Secondary Science and Mathematics Education, aimed at strengthening the university’s support of science and mathematics education throughout the region.

The Illinois Board of Higher Education recently approved center status for a duration of five years, after which it could become permanent. The center will be housed in Faraday Hall.

NIU already is consistently in the Top 10 universities in the nation in terms of producing graduates who become secondary math teachers. The university  typically averages more than 30 such graduates a year, and because of the program’s strong licensure requirements, those graduates land jobs nationwide, said Bonnie Kersten, coordinator of teacher licensure in the mathematics department.

“While the training of mathematics teachers continues to be among our strong suits at NIU, the new center addresses a particular need that arose in the sciences, where we had seen numbers thin among faculty members who train students to become middle and high school science teachers,” added Chris McCord, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS).

“We needed to rebuild, and I thought it much stronger to rebuild in the center configuration, and to bring the sciences and mathematics together in the enterprise,” McCord said.

Christopher McCord
Christopher McCord

At NIU, CLAS oversees teacher licensure programs in biology, chemistry, earth and space sciences, physics and mathematics, as well as foreign languages, social sciences and English.

Major goals of the new center include:

  • streamlining science and mathematics education within Liberal Arts and Sciences,
  • increasing the pipeline of student teachers prepared for licensure in science and mathematics education,
  • augmenting the knowledge and skills of the region’s current science and math teachers through delivery of expanded professional development offerings,
  • collaborating with schools in the region to improve middle and high school students’ performance in science and math, and
  • engaging in interdisciplinary research on effective teaching and learning strategies.

“The center brings together a group of top faculty members who have a common goal to promote math and science education,” said biology professor Jon Miller, who has been tapped as the center’s interim director.

Miller said interest is on the upswing among NIU students who seek to become science teachers. A cohort of eight such students will graduate in May, followed by an expected cohort of 16 next year.

“I also have 14 incoming students for next fall interested just in the area of teaching biology, not to mention students seeking to teach in other areas of science,” Miller said.

Jon Miller
Jon Miller

“If you look at the big picture in education, math and science teachers remain in demand at the middle and high school levels, with physics in the most demand,” he said. “High school students want to take physics, but there’s a shortage of teachers.”

The new center is supported by Kersten in mathematics and science coordinator Judy Boisen.

Center faculty associates and affiliates include Michael Eads in physics and Nicole LaDue in geology, both of whom were recently hired as joint appointments with the center; Paul Kelter from the College of Education; Sheldon Turner, who holds a joint appointment with the Institute for the Study of Environment, Sustainability and Energy; and Paul Dawkins, Helen Khoury, Mary Shafer and Alan Zollman in mathematics.

Some of the center’s faculty associates are already involved in professional development efforts in school districts throughout the region, and Miller envisions the center engaging with high school students interested in doing research as well.

Miller said the center also will be part of a concerted effort toward fostering STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education across the region, with plans to join forces with efforts in the College of Education and the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology, as well as with NIU’s already impressive STEM Outreach program.

Additionally, the new center will be better positioned to attract grant money, Miller said.

Center associates are currently working on a proposed $3.6 million grant to partner with public schools in a nearby county and promote STEM learning for K-5 teachers. The grant would include partnerships with mining and gravel pit companies in the region, so young students could learn about STEM fields in industry.

Dean McCord noted that the College of Education and College of Engineering and Engineering Technology were involved in planning for the center.

“At present, the center is within Liberal Arts and Sciences,” he said, “but we see this as a step in integrating STEM education efforts across campus.”

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