STEM grant links Dartmouth, Montshire to middle schools

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/26/2019 10:00:29 PM
Modified: 8/26/2019 10:00:24 PM

Stephen Moss knows what’s possible when kids get excited about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) projects. At his former position at Harmony Public Schools, a charter school district in Houston, Texas, middle and high school students built a $100,000 solar-powered car and devised a way to make prosthetic limbs for local veterans using a 3-D printer. A full 57 percent of the district’s graduates go into STEM fields in college.

Moss, now a curriculum specialist for SAU 6 in Claremont, hopes a new collaboration with Dartmouth College and the Montshire Museum of Science will bring a bit of that same energy to students here. Claremont Middle School is one of four area schools that will pilot a program designed to enhance STEM education in middle schools where resources are stretched thin.

“It’s about getting kids interested early and often,” said Moss, who plans to integrate the new learning units into work the district is already undertaking to revamp its science curriculum.

Funded by a $1.3 million Science Education Partnership Award from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the five-year project will connect Dartmouth professors and graduate students from multiple disciplines, as well as educators from the Montshire Museum, in Norwich, with public school teachers from Claremont Middle School, Tunbridge Central School, Indian River Middle School in Canaan and Barnet (Vt.) School to build STEM-focused lessons that emphasize hands-on, student-centered learning. Designed to draw students into STEM lessons during a period of their development when they tend to lose interest in STEM subjects, the initiative also will provide educators a chance to collaborate and give young people exposure to real-life scientists.

Over the first three years, the project will follow the same group of students from sixth through eighth grade in each of the four schools, which were selected based on their percentage of students in the federal free and reduced lunch program, a common measure of poverty. In the fourth and fifth years, it will expand into eight additional area schools, which have yet to be selected. Once the units are developed and piloted, they’ll be posted to a website where any educator can access them for free.

“Teachers play so many roles and wear so many hats right now in public education,” said Michele Tine, an associate professor of education at Dartmouth and member of the collaborative team. “This is really empowering the teachers and giving them the space and time and resources to create effective curriculum.”

Teacher agency is one of the key components of the project, which will begin with a daylong meeting at Dartmouth next month. During that time, science teachers from each of the schools will meet with Dartmouth faculty and Montshire staff to discuss their current programs, key challenges and areas of interest for both teachers and students.

“It’s a little undefined right now on purpose,” Tine said. “We really want to organically find out what the teachers need and what the obstacles are.”

While it won’t alleviate core problems in schools that perennially wrestle with inadequate funding, the project may relieve a bit of burden for teachers, who often have to stretch outside their area of expertise, particularly in rural districts and districts with high teacher turnover.

“Sometimes the teacher is a few days ahead of the students in the textbook,” said Roger Sloboda, a professor of biology at Dartmouth and project lead. “There’s not a whole lot of experience that teacher can draw on to make the topic engaging.”

While mapping out their needs and goals, educators will enjoy a side benefit that’s in rare supply in public education but increasingly viewed as paramount to strong student outcomes: teacher collaboration.

“We’re excited about it because our teachers have little to no contact with other teachers in other schools, especially when it comes to science programs,” said Moss, who is beginning his second year in the district.

After sketching out plans, teachers will develop educational units and begin implementing them at the sixth-grade level during the coming school year. Montshire Museum educators will help design the units and Dartmouth graduate students will serve as “near-peer” mentors for the middle school students.

That exposure to real and aspiring scientists is another significant benefit of the program, said Tine, whose specialty areas include the impact of poverty on education and the successful implementation of curriculum. While there are many ways to measure the effectiveness of a lesson, relevance is a critical ingredient, she said. Intriguing content is part of the equation, but students also need to be able to connect to STEM topics on a personal level.

“A lot of kids, in rural areas especially … don’t know any scientists,” Tine said. “This (program) allows them to meet and develop a relationship with someone that they can relate to and bond with, who is a scientist. Scientists aren’t just 60-year-old white-haired men in lab coats.”

Dartmouth’s scientists also will have the help of Montshire educators, who are seasoned in developing effective, hands-on science projects, said Marcos Stafne, executive director of the Montshire Museum. The museum’s longstanding STEM alliance sends educators into small rural schools with an eye toward innovation. “We try to get teachers to push their boundaries and try new things,” he said.

Along with expertise, teachers and students will have access to technology and tools they wouldn’t otherwise have at their disposal. The budget includes money for materials, and programming can include field trips to Dartmouth’s science and engineering facilities as well as the Montshire.

Dartmouth welcomes visitors to its facilities, Sloboda said, but for some schools, transportation alone can make such trips cost prohibitive. That’s one more obstacle the new program will remove — at least temporarily. The grant only covers the costs of implementation for the initial classes.

The units will align with the Next Generation Science Standards that have been adopted by 26 states, including New Hampshire and Vermont, and ideally will include multi-media tools such as illustrations and videos to make them engaging and easy to implement, Sloboda said.

“We hope that by making the classroom engaging, students might stay interested in science longer,” Sloboda said. “Data show that students lose interest in science in middle school.”

Those statistics can change, said Vicki May, a professor of engineering at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering and a member of the collaborative team.

“Somebody on campus asked me, ‘how can you teach middle school students engineering?’ ” said May, who has led a variety of programs designed to make engineering fun and accessible to young people, including a build-your-own musical instrument workshop at the Montshire Museum. “Kids love to be creative and build things.”

Sarah Earle can be reached at or 603-727-3268.

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