STEM Refocuses Water Education in Arizona

Back to Summer 2012 Newsletter

by Jacob Prietto, WRRC Graduate Outreach Assistant

In recent years, U.S. employers have been reaching out internationally in order to fill job vacancies in highly skilled science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. This situation has led to calls for better STEM education in the United States. Innovative educational initiatives have emerged to answer the call for more professional competence in these STEM areas. In his 2012 State of the Union address to Congress, President Barrack Obama again emphasized the need to interest and educate young people to become the scientists, engineers and mathematicians of the future. “Growing industries in science and technology have twice as many openings as we have workers who can do the job.” The challenge, he said, is providing the right educational environment for teachers and students to excel.

Proponents of STEM education may have found a superstar spokesperson this August with NASA’s Mars rover landing of Curiosity. A Flight Director on the mission, Bobak Ferdowsi aka “The Mohawk Guy”, became an overnight internet sensation, with his red-streaked and star studded mohawk hairdo, captivating the online social networks and viral news feeds. In an interview with Shira Lizar, for What’s Trending, Ferdowsi speaks about the potential influence the Mars landing mission could have on STEM education. “I hope it encourages a lot of people to get into math and science, and technology and engineering.” He says, “It’s a lot of fun… you could be whatever you want, as long as you have a passion.”

In 2001, Judith A. Ramaley was the first person to conceptualize STEM. As director of the National Science Foundation’s education and human resources division, Ramaley began developing curriculum to advance the education of science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. ‘SMET’ was the first acronym tossed around the office, but she didn’t like it. So, Ramaley coined STEM to showcase science and math as the bookends that hold together technology and engineering. The acronym stuck; educators and policy makers are now following her lead, engaging students with deeper understandings using integrated approaches.

Organizations and agencies at all levels are now dedicating resources to promote and improve STEM education. These resources provide added impetus to efforts to recruit students into STEM fields and to enhance their educational experiences. In Arizona, Governor Jan Brewer charged the Science Foundation Arizona (SFAz) in September of 2010 to develop a community-based statewide plan for STEM education, launch the Arizona STEM Network, and implement the first Five-Year Plan for STEM Education. The Arizona STEM Network is a strategic effort to provide the structure, tools and resources needed to integrate effective STEM education into the state’s schools. According to the Arizona STEM Network, STEM education goes beyond traditional educational practices. It is an integrated, interdisciplinary approach to learning that provides project-based and relevant experiences for students. STEM education aims for a deep understanding of subject matter and its implications in answering questions and solving problems of local and global importance.

The University of Arizona (UA), has many STEM education initiatives. The UA STEM Learning Center is the place for students, teachers and professionals to investigate all things STEM related on campus. A central clearing house, it also acts as UA’s representative in 100Kin10, a nationwide movement introduced in 2011 to train and retain 100,000 STEM teachers in the next 10 years. With funding from the National Science Foundation, the Southwest Institute for Research on Women at the UA’s College of Science, is expanding their research and outreach to incorporate more STEM components. A new program, “i-STEM” is working with 60 Native American and Hispanic youth groups (Grade 3-8) to implement mentoring programs and educational field trips to inspire youth to become involved in the STEM fields. The UA College of Science is also offering several professional development opportunities to K-12 educators and outreach specialists, part of the college’s collaboration with the Arizona Center for STEM Teachers (ACST), with a three-year $1.5 million grant by SFAz. The center will act as a resource and training facility to expand and improve the quality of STEM teachers in Arizona. ACST is cofunded by the Philecology Foundation and is housed at the University of Arizona’s B2 Institute, located at Biosphere 2.

Water education and outreach professionals are evaluating what STEM means for water education. Neither reinvention nor business as usual, what we are seeing is an integration of core academic subject matter into a learning experience that reflects the real world water challenges. Universities, utilities, agencies, and research facilities are using water education as an opportunity to strengthen interdisciplinary studies and provide a common platform for water knowledge.

From his experience as a teacher, Tim Bayley at UA’s Biosphere 2 has seen the traditional approaches to education isolate the critical subjects. Today’s professionals were first taught fundamental subjects separately that were spliced together later as students pursued their graduate studies and professional careers. As a hydrologist, however, Bayley knows that the core subjects, like math and physics must be understood in an integrated fashion to pursue hydrologic investigations. Bayley is creating a model for a more integrated learning experience using water education as a platform. At Biosphere 2, middle school and high school students are invited into the facilities and explore the variety of biomes behind the glass. The students generate their own research questions, and apply STEM components to pursue their own investigations. The program emphasizes the scientific method, constructing a hypothesis and evaluating data. “Science gets interesting when it’s applied to the real world,” says Bayley, about the opportunity students get when participating in actual research done by professionals at Biosphere 2. He uses the STEM focus as an opportunity to awaken kids to the beauty of science, engineering, and technology.

Arizona Project WET (APW) has been the leader in water education at the K-12 level for many years. Under the leadership of Kerry Schwartz, the State Coordinator for Project WET, APW has worked with stakeholders to integrate water education across the curriculum, combining STEM skills in the process of developing understanding of major water issues, through interdisciplinary instruction and the 5E theory: engage, explore, explain, elaborate, and then evaluate.

Schwartz says “Lecturing to the audience does not work for the APW objectives.” In the past few years, the APW team has adapted professional development workshops to incorporate standards-focused Project Based Learning. This model engages students in answering questions, thinking through locally relevant problems, and applying learning. “Project Based Learning is the best way to integrate STEM subjects”, she says. Programs like the Water Investigations Program (see WIP article, this issue) and the Water Scene Investigators Program have students asking their own authentic questions and answering them by collecting data to support their claims. In the School Water Audit Program, students apply simple technological solutions to provide water savings at their schools and at their homes. Schwartz emphasizes that STEM subjects require integrated, solution oriented methods, “There’s a recognition that we have to do these things.”

Outside the academic setting, agencies and organizations with an interest in water education are refocusing their outreach efforts on STEM objectives. Salt River Project (SRP), the electricity and water provider of the greater Phoenix metropolitan area, has been promoting water education for more than 20 years. SRP has focused on three goals when implementing their water resources education programs: present a general understanding of hydrology and the water cycle, articulate the complex industry of water resources management which most often requires difficult solutions, and maintain a direct line of communication with teachers and students. With STEM playing a more significant role in education recently, the education department at SRP is implementing stronger components of engineering and technology into their curriculum.

“Technology doesn’t always mean a computer,” says Alison Smith, the Sr. Community Outreach Representative. “It could be a low flow toilet or a faucet aerator.” When SRP works with teachers, they set the stage with a regionally based water resources challenge and teachers provide their own expertise to solve problems. Brainstorming and collaborative efforts are brought to bear to find the best possible solutions.

The Central Arizona Project (CAP), which brings Arizona’s Colorado River water entitlement to users in central Arizona, has an interest in developing a water literate public. The CAP provides a variety of K-12 programs, including H2O for Kids (K-Grade 3), offering water conservation and water history lessons. More than 500 teachers contribute insight and feedback to this program.

Another CAP program, Arizona Water Story (Grade 4-6), is co-produced with the Salt River Project. The program was updated in 2010 to include greater STEM content and more handson experiments were added. Crystal Thompson, the Community Relations Coordinator believes that STEM material is very important to the CAP water education objective, “math and science are very much the focal points of all our programs”. Computer games are also being used as a learning tool to connect with youths and adults alike.

As more attention is focused on integrating STEM into our education philosophy, other fundamental subjects such as reading, writing, social studies, history, and cultural studies continue to be integral to water education. Kerry Schwartz sees opportunities for teaching about water in the total curriculum. “Good education is good education,” she says. “It’s all about getting kids excited about learning, wanting to learn, and going out and doing it.”

Judith A. Ramaley, the “godmother” of STEM also sees an evolution of the current philosophy. STEM is turning into STEAM, she has said; the “A” stands for arts.