CARBONDALE — A $2.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation will allow Southern Illinois University Carbondale to continue a program that helps highly qualified STEM teachers in the region modernize their curricula and address local environmental problems.
The Robert Noyce Master Teacher Fellowship project will provide support and training to 15 middle and high school teachers with master’s degrees in the rural River Region.
The new teacher development program will build on the successes of the previous project, which was funded by a $3.25 million grant secured in 2011. For that project, 40 teachers conducted research in the Cache River wetlands and then brought their experiences back to the classroom, according to Karen Renzaglia, research professor of plant biology at SIUC and the principal investigator on the grant.
“That has been a transformative experience for our teachers, because they think of themselves as scientists and then they take those skills and that kind of thought back to the classroom, and the kids start to feel like they’re scientists, and they’re really engaged,” Renzaglia said.
The newly awarded grant will fund a project that focuses on five science contact areas: general sustainability concepts, toxicology and waste management, biodiversity, global environmental change, and energy.
“We have a lot of expertise in sustainability and ecology and environmental science and studies at SIU,” Renzaglia said.
The following schools will participate in the program: Belleville Township High School West, Cairo Jr./Sr. High School, Carruthers School, Norris City-Omaha-Enfield High School, Grayville Community Unit School District 1, Trico Community Unit School District 176 and Steeleville Community Unit School District 138.
The teachers who are selected will take part in summer research experiences and will be mentored by SIUC researchers and science education experts throughout the five-year project. They will develop sustainability plans specific to their schools.
“If you deal with environmental problems that are local, I think the kids have more of an investment, and they take ownership. It becomes something that’s pertinent to their lives rather than something more abstract. … So they can apply that knowledge and the skills of thinking through those problems to global issues,” Renzaglia said.
Renzaglia said it can be hard to get kids interested in STEM fields, but teaching them about what’s right in their backyards can generate interest.
She said one teacher in Saline County took her class to the Saline River as part of the most recent program. Although the river was nearby, the students hadn’t even known it was there.
“The kids went there and did chemical studies and looked at the invertebrates, and so those kids, they walked down to that river, which was like a half-mile hike down there, and they really got into it. That was their river,” Renzaglia said.
SIUC will also partner with the Science Center in Carbondale to further educate the public about environmental sustainability.
Renzaglia said that she and her co-principal investigators are working on developing the application packet for the fellowships.