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California State University’s STAR Guides Toward Science Teaching

Program places students as fellows in research roles at
national labs and NASA centers

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(February 17, 2011) - California State University students Kaitlyn Fiechtner and Helida Haro found themselves at an unusual place for pre-service teachers last summer – NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base through the university's Science Teacher and Researcher (STAR) program.

Fiechtner, an undergraduate in mathematics at Fresno State, analyzed NASA’s FOSS – or Fiber-Optic Strain-Sensing system.  Haro, who earned a teaching credential at CSU Bakersfield and a master’s degree in applied mathematics at Cal State Northridge, examined “moments of inertia” to determine an aircraft’s distribution of mass, and thereby refine efforts to determine its weight.

CSU's pioneering STAR program  selects pre-service teachers (upper-division science, math and engineering majors and teaching credential students) as fellows. After orienting them, STAR dispatches the fellows for nine- to 10-week summer sojourns to national laboratories and other research centers to investigate technical questions along challenging lines of research while working with the labs’ engineers and scientists.

The program is coordinated on behalf of the CSU system by the Center for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Education (CESaME) at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Launch at Lawrence Livermore with 16 fellows
In 2007, the first 16 STAR fellows were dispatched to conduct research – as paid interns – at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory through funding from the National Science Foundation.  With support primarily from the Stephen Bechtel Fund, as well as from the Fluor Corporation Foundation, STAR began to expand, placing 30 fellows in 2008 and 39 in 2009 at eight different California facilities.

In 2010, with continued funding from the Bechtel Fund and added support from the NSF Noyce Scholars Program, STAR placed 71 fellows and connected with labs in four more states. (The Noyce program encourages talented science and math students and professionals to pursue teaching careers in high-need school districts.) While STAR has placed most of its fellows in the Bay Area, it has also partnered with national labs in Southern California, Washington, Colorado, Maryland and Tennessee.

Haro and Fiechtner were the first teacher-researchers to land at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center.

According to CESaME Director John Keller, the pair did more than strengthen their own capabilities and prospects as future science teachers:  “They fostered a cultural shift among members of the lab community there.”

Culture shifts at NASA’s Dryden amid STAR 2
Previously, many of Dryden’s engineers had not considered the potential of teachers and future teachers as researchers, Keller said. They were more familiar with hosting primarily engineering students as interns. “As we anticipated, the research mentors at Dryden were very pleased with the work that the STAR fellows accomplished,” he said.

The experience has boosted the Dryden scientific community’s confidence in teachers, he said, and it also gave the engineers and other mentors at the research center new insights beyond the lab.

“By working with future teachers, they began to understand the contributions they themselves can make on the educational system,” said Keller.

A Noyce scholar, Fresno State’s Fiechtner plans to resume her strain-sensing research at Dryden this summer. Haro, selected recently for a NASA fellowship, has a new position – teaching math and science at San Fernando Middle School. “I love it,” she said.  “I'm sure that my internships helped me get the job.”

STAR search for science teachers aims to reach hundreds
Unique in its coupling of public and private support, STAR built upon an earlier Department of Energy Pre-Service Teacher (PST) research program. Part of the CSU’s Mathematics and Science Teacher Initiative, STAR seeks to help address the estimated need for 33,000 more math and science teachers in California over the next decade by improving teacher recruitment, education and professional development, and retention rates.

How?  By providing future teachers with prestigious, inspiring and demanding research experiences, and by fostering inquiry-based science teaching and learning. The STAR program also creates a welcome sense of belonging to a larger community of scientists and teachers.

When last summer’s participants were surveyed, 89 percent reported it built their confidence and heightened their interest in teaching; and 95 percent said STAR increased their desire to combine teaching and research. All of those surveyed indicated that the experience made them feel like they were part of a broader community of teacher-researchers.

This summer, the program aims to place another 70 fellows (drawn from 140 applicants), Keller said. At this level, he said, the program has limited impact on addressing the looming shortage, but it promotes future “teacher-leaders” who can bring the benefits of research experience to schools.

In its broader vision, he said, organizers seek to institutionalize a sustainable STAR program.

“We would like it to be a program of several hundred California students each year having research as part of their credential-program experience,” he said. “That would have a much larger impact.”

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