August 25, 2008

Boise State Gets Funds for Grade School Tech Ed

By Hagadone, Zach

Boise State University is hoping a grant from the U.S. Department of Education will help bolster Idaho students' math and science abilities. The award comes at a time when educators, policy makers and business leaders around the country fret over declining international competitiveness.

The grant for $191,593 will go to support the Idaho SySTEMic Solution - a project created by Boise State's colleges of engineering and education focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.

"The Idaho SySTEMic Solution grant recognizes Boise State's leadership on a topic of utmost national importance - fostering scientific and mathematical literacy in young students," said Janet Callahan, associate dean of the College of Engineering and the SySTEMic project leader.

PCS Edventures, a Boise-based firm that provides products and services to foster STEM education around the world, will provide instructional materials, like the company's hands-on teaching tool BrickLab; teacher education, including workshops and specialized curriculum; and ongoing consulting services.

Already more than 40 elementary school teachers from the Meridian School District have begun training in inquiry-based science, technology and math instructional methods at Boise State's SySTEMic Solution institute, with plans to implement STEM teaching concepts in selected first- through fifth-grade classrooms at seven Meridian schools.

Funding for the SySTEMic Solution couldn't have come any sooner, according to researchers. The 2006 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which tested 400,000 15-year-old students around the world, showed U.S. science skills lag behind 16 of the world's 30 richest and most industrialized nations (as represented in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development).

Students in Finland, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and Australia made up the top five, ranking far ahead of their U.S. counterparts, who scored only 489 out of a possible 1,000. The closest scores to those of American students were in France, Iceland, the Slovak Republic and Spain.

The picture was even worse when it came to math - U.S. students were on par with just two countries (Spain and Portugal), and outperformed only four (Italy, Greece, Turkey and Mexico).

Though not a participant in the test, Chinese students in Hong Kong, Taipei and Macao would have come in first or second in both categories - something even co-founder and former CEO of Microsoft Bill Gates addressed in March when testifying before Congress about the need to expand visa opportunities for foreign-born tech workers. He noted that much of the expertise that keeps America competitive comes from highly educated engineers born in Asia.

Many worry that such reliance on international sources of brainpower ultimately short-changes American students and American business.

But Callahan sees hope in Idaho's students. While still ranked low in comparison with their international peers, they have consistently tested higher than the U.S. average - 85 percent of the state's fourth-graders and 75 percent of its eighth-graders scored at or above "basic" on the 2007 National Assessment of Education Progress (the national average is 81 and 70 percent, respectively), and in 2005, 75 percent of fourth-graders and 71 percent of eighth- graders scored at or above "basic" in science (beating the national averages of 66 and 57 percent).

"Our children can excel in math and science and become the next generation of innovative scientists and ingenious engineers that the U.S. has always been famous for, and who have contributed so fundamentally to the economic vitality of our nation," Callahan said.

Credit: Zach Hagadone

(Copyright 2008 Dolan Media Newswires)

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