UB-led STEM partnership lands $1.2 million grant to extend Buffalo Public Schools program

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Source: UB News

What happens when the students become the teachers? In a popular Buffalo Public Schools program led by the University at Buffalo, magic happened.

The Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Program (ISEP) — a collaboration of the UB, SUNY Buffalo State College and the Buffalo Museum of Science with the Buffalo Public Schools —  exposes middle and high school students to science and engineering.

It has served almost 6,000 students in class, in after school programs and in summer camps and research, as well as hundreds of teachers in professional development. The teachers had been through the program participated in professional development research opportunities, and the program had earned high praise for increasing interest in science and math classes. But despite that success, it is approaching the end of its five-year funding.

But one specific element of the training — in which middle school students helped teach the teachers how to use mapping apps on their smartphones ­­­­­— showed such strong results, it just won a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to continue operating for three more years.

“For one part of this activity we obtained smartphones with GPS units in them so that the kids can take them into the field,” said Joseph A. Gardella Jr., PhD, ISEP project lead and a SUNY Distinguished Professor and the John and Frances Larkin Professor of Chemistry at UB. “We had teachers and students mapping invasive species at Tifft Nature Preserve.”

“But what happened in the summer activity is that the teachers realized the students could do more on the programming side than they could. The teachers were depending on the students to get things set up and it had a synergistic effect,” he said.

The federal government liked that synergy and the ability to measure its impact on learning, and awarded the grant.

“The students became sophisticated participants,” Gardella said. “That convinced the NSF that this really was a unique situation.”

The benefit of having students and teachers in the same training programs could prove to be a significant discovery. “This is a focused, small piece, but it’s unique. If you bring teachers in the class along with students, it’s more complicated but the outcomes are way better,” Gardella said.

The focus on geographic information systems, or GIS, has multiple goals. First, it increases the students’ interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), the overall goal of the ISEP program. And second, the job market for people trained in GIS technology is growing fast.

“In addition to software companies, environmental companies have huge GIS sections. Urban planners, planning and environmental offices need people in GIS because they don’t use paper maps anymore,” Gardella said. “In addition, medical researchers use GIS to track diseases.”

Gardella said the goal is to bring the ISEP program to all 58 Buffalo public schools. While the latest grant funds one element of the whole program, they are applying for eight grants a year for other parts.

He sees the success of the program is as part of the region’s economic transformation and part of UB’s role as a major research institution.

“We have people here, and if we get people ready for those jobs, they will be here,” he said. “I think everybody in this community wants to have a chance for those jobs.”

“It’s a unique, nationally significant program.”

Gardella is joined by the following co-principal investigators from UB: Ling Bian, PhD, professor of geography; John Cerne, PhD, professor of physics; Xiufeng Liu, PhD, Center for Educational Innovation director and professor in the Graduate School of Education; and Sandro Sodano, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Counseling, School, and Educational Psychology.

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