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Conference at UNG equips STEM teachers

GSTA conference 2015
Kristi Weaver, a fifth-grade teacher from Settles Bridge Elementary School in Forsyth County, learns how to build a simple satellite out of a Ping-Pong ball. The project was one of several methods shown to science teachers to help them ignite curiosity and interest in STEM fields amongst their students.

More than 50 teachers attended a conference at the University of North Georgia (UNG) to learn how to spark students' interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at all grade levels and help overcome the nation's shortage of workers employed in scientific fields.

Held on UNG's Gainesville Campus on March 28, the Experiential Learning and Inquiry for Physical Science Educators (ELIPSE) Conference was a collaboration between UNG, Brenau University, Georgia State University, the Physics Teacher Education Coalition and the Georgia Science Teachers Association. The conference included teachers from kindergarten through 12th grade.

"How do we prepare ourselves to prepare future generations when we don't know what they'll face?" asked Dr. April Nelms, assistant professor and coordinator of science education at UNG. "We need to foster their curiosity and teach them how to think. We have to learn how to design our instruction to foster a culture of hope in our classrooms, because STEM is in high demand in the U.S."

JB Sharma
Dr. JB Sharma welcomes teachers as the conference begins.

Nearly 60 percent of U.S. students who begin high school interested in a STEM field change their minds by graduation, according to a 2013 report from STEMconnector. In particular, only 14.5 percent of female students show interest in STEM fields, compared to 39.6 percent of male students. The report also states that science and engineering jobs in the U.S. are expected to grow from 7.4 million in 2012 to more than 8.6 million by 2018.

ELIPSE builds upon the university's efforts to support STEM education in Georgia's K-12 schools, for which Nelms and colleagues received a $138,483 grant from the Georgia Department of Education's Mathematics and Science Partnership program in 2014. Their work is designed to strengthen teachers' content knowledge and teaching skills in STEM subjects.

"You control the rivulets and streams of science students that we later receive," Dr. JB Sharma, professor and assistant head of UNG's Department of Physics, told the teachers in attendance. "Together, we can open the STEM pipeline for our students. Today is a beginning; we want to sustain this movement and build continuity in supporting each other."

Activities for teachers included myriad ways to engage students of multiple age ranges, including unique projects and ways to leverage new technology in the classroom.

Kindergarten and elementary school students can build a helicopter out of paper to learn teamwork and simple applications of physics. Students of all ages can make satellites out of Ping-Pong balls, named Pongsats. Teachers of older students can use free software to enhance students' understanding of physics, like a program that tracks motion in videos and provides output in a way that engages students.

Sharma said the group plans to hold the conference again next year. The focus and programming for next year's event will be guided by feedback from teachers who attended this year and implemented learned methods in their classrooms, Sharma said.

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