Teachers teaching teachers about STEM teaching
UND’s College of Education & Human Development welcomes nearly 160 educators for teacher-led conference
North Dakota’s ongoing teacher shortage has affected every region in the state. It’s been a growing concern for years, exemplified by the state’s Education Standards & Practices Board making an emergency appeal to Gov. Doug Burgum to allow student teachers to be the lone teacher in their classrooms.
Funding issues and difficult-to-find resources are common concerns for current education professionals. With that in mind, the College of Education & Human Development founded the Office of Teacher Recruitment & Retention to develop programming to help current and future teachers address those concerns and more.
A big conference for big ideas
On Aug. 10, CEHD and OTRR partnered with the North Dakota Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research to hold the Nurturing STEM in the Pre K-12 Classroom conference, an event intended to strengthen STEM curricula in North Dakota schools.
The daylong event, which Associate Professor of Science Education Ryan Summers called “the first of its kind for CEHD,” was hosted in the Memorial Union, where parts of the second and third floors were reserved for teachers to learn, network and get hands-on experience with concepts they can bring back to their classrooms. The college was particularly pleased with the turnout, as more than 150 educators across the state made reservations.
Summers said there has been a growing demand for in-person events since the pandemic popularized virtual conferences. While virtual events have greater accessibility, Summers appreciates the unique quality of face-to-face time.
“Virtual events can be great; they allow for international participants and a diversity of teaching styles,” he said. “But it’s been nice to hold a large event like this where everyone can be in the room together. It was important to me that the event encourage dialogue, and I think it’s been successful in that respect.”
Specifically, this helped Summers connect teachers with each other, UND faculty and other organizations that can help them deliver the best quality STEM education.
The advantage of this approach was apparent in the 24 breakout sessions. Organizers set aside four 45-minute blocks of time to let teachers get hands-on time with the many STEM activities brought by teachers from across the state. Getting face time with other teachers in small discussion groups also was a highlight.
Connecting educators of all kinds
CEHD tailored the event’s offerings to teachers’ many and varied needs. Some teachers may not have robust backgrounds in STEM, and Summers said that the college was committed to making the offerings attractive and approachable, no matter the teachers’ experience.
“STEM can really be broadly defined, and often at elementary and middle school levels, subjects aren’t siloed,” he noted. “A skillful teacher can blend them together. We tried to facilitate that, connecting subjects such as robotics and literacy to make something as essential as STEM less intimidating.”
One element that made the day unique was the carefully curated mix of presenters. The 10-14 split between UND educators and Grand Forks teachers fostered a collaborative environment where both sets of professionals could learn from and connect with the other.
“It’s been really neat bringing everyone together,” Summers said. “We have faculty on this campus who have funding that they just can’t give away because they’ve struggled to connect with teachers. On top of that, most of these teachers don’t have access to grant writing specialists in their school districts, and most of our college faculty are skilled in that area. It’s really beneficial to everyone involved.”
Monte Gaukler, the outreach specialist for OTRR, concurred, saying that the mix of presenters and diversity of attendees from 44 different cities in the region made for a naturally collaborative and supportive environment.
“In my years working and educating in Grand Forks, I don’t remember a conference like this being available to teachers,” said Gaukler, who formerly worked for Grand Forks Public Schools before joining UND in 2018.
Teacher-led, by design
The conference aligned with OTRR’s mission to offer teachers support and, crucially, to make them aware of resources and techniques open to them around the region. To do so, they were careful to simultaneously celebrate the profession while acknowledging the hurdles teachers regularly encounter.
For example, Discovery Elementary robotics club coaches discussed their program during a presentation in one of the Memorial Union ballrooms. While they had found great success at their school in working with Discovery students to develop design, coding and teamwork skills, they were frank about their struggles to secure funding to keep the program running.
This sentiment is one of the unfortunate realities of many STEM-centric activities in schools. Materials are often costly and acquired out of teachers’ own pocketbooks, Gaukler said. So, planners made efforts to connect them with organizations such as Dakota Science Center, Fenworks and North Dakota Soybean Council, which were offering $500 grants for attendees.
“One of the things that was very important to us when we were presented with this opportunity through EPSCoR, was to think about how we could give back to our teachers,” Gaukler said. “So, we’re offering continuing education credits to all of our attendees for free.”
Earning continuing education credits is a requirement for teachers in North Dakota and typically comes at the expense of educators themselves. Gaukler viewed the decision to provide the credits for free as a gesture of thanks to the educators for coming to share their experience, knowledge and perspective.
In addition, Summers noted that the college provided stipends for travel and materials to defer the cost of participating in the event. This was crucial, said Summers, because they wanted the perspective of local educators to be front and center.
“A lot of conferences we’ve had in the past have been focused on college faculty, so we made an intentional effort to ensure this was teacher- led,” he said.
“Involving local teachers helped us to secure our morning panel featuring state and county Teachers of the Year, and also improved the dialogue that we were able to have. As much as college faculty try to stay connected with the challenges in education, no one knows what works better than the teachers who are currently experiencing those challenges.”
Summers says that CEHD was impressed with the turnout at the event, crediting the connections UND has made with educators across the region with the conference’s success. He says that he’s hoping that similar events will become a staple of the college’s programming.