Increasing diversity in geosciences and fostering hands-on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education within Wisconsin communities is at the heart of a new, National Science Foundation (NSF) GEOPAths-funded project that will bring together educational and environmental leaders throughout Beloit with faculty/staff from the University of Wisconsin- Madison Nelson Institute. Through trainings, mentorships, hands-on experiences, and more, the partnership is set to increase student interest in STEM, improve achievement gaps, and increase diversity within STEM degrees and careers.
Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research (CCR) associate director, Michael Notaro and CCR Outreach Director, Rose Pertzborn will partner with leaders from the School District of Beloit, Beloit College, Welty Environmental Center, and Achieving Collaborative Treatment to create STEM opportunities for students through a program they are calling, Wisconsin Educational Leadership for Community Outreach and Mentoring for the Environment (WELCOME).
“The motivation behind this project is to address a number of challenges, including the lack of diversity in the geosciences,” Notaro said. “We will also address the fact that science teaching continues to be lecture-based, and we want to push for the more recommended nature-based, active learning. We also want to address the fact that K-12 teachers have indicated that they largely feel underprepared for teaching on climate change. And, we want to address the needs of the autistic youth. Often, there is interest in STEM among autistic youth, but there are challenges that they face and we want to help them to find a path for pursuing STEM degrees and careers.” By establishing summer STEM camps at the Welty Environmental Center for autistic middle and high school students, Notaro aims to support neurodivergence in a safe, inclusive learning environment.
Notaro shared that the community partnerships will be key in addressing these challenges as the Beloit community comes together to support this project. While each partner will play their own unique role, Brenda Plakans, the executive director of the Welty Environmental Center, was instrumental in helping to bring new partners onto this project; offering a connection to the School District of Beloit, which is one of Welty’s primary program partners, and a strong relationship with Beloit College’s Education and Youth Studies department.
“The genesis of this project can actually be traced back to the Nelson Institute,” Plakans said. “I met Rose Pertzborn at a Research and Environmental Education Partnership (REEP) speed-networking forum—an event sponsored by Nature Net, the Center for Climatic Research, and the UW- Arboretum, with funding from a Baldwin Seed Grant. It was an opportunity for southern Wisconsin nature educators to meet with UW researchers and see what kind of collaborations might be possible. Rose was interested in extending CCR’s partnerships with south-central Wisconsin school districts to provide training for a NASA-designed science curriculum, GLOBE.”
The Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) program is a NASA/NSF/NOAA-supported citizen science and education program that encourages local science investigation by K-12 students. Notaro and Pertzborn are Wisconsin GLOBE partners/trainers. Through this program, students and teachers are provided with the tools and training they need to gather data on the atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and pedosphere (soil). As a part of the WELCOME project, the School District of Beloit, Beloit College pre-service teachers and in-service teachers, and Welty leaders will receive GLOBE training so that they can incorporate active, nature-based climate science learning in their curriculum and lead future training efforts.
“This collaboration is a game-changer for Welty. We will be the physical ‘home base’ for the grant and will help coordinate most training activities,” Plakans said. “Big Hill Park (Welty’s location) can serve as a site for GLOBE research, and our organization will host student internships and poster sessions. Our program staff will participate in the GLOBE training the first year, so they can lead these workshops going forward. This funding also helps us build our capacity to serve the (Wisconsin, Illinois) Stateline area and supports our mission to provide leadership in environmental education for the region. It will be exciting to work with area science teachers, to help them develop their skills and deepen their ability to engage their students with meaningful geoscience activities. I imagine we will learn a lot from Rose and Michael Notaro about hosting these kinds of workshops and trainings.”
Kelley Grorud, the Director of Instructional Leadership and STEAM for the School District of Beloit, is equally excited to begin the project, having worked with Notaro and Pertzborn to apply for the grant. Grorud, along with district leadership, supports the goals of the grant and hopes that this project will provide staff and students with the resources and opportunities they need to narrow the STEM achievement gap that is currently seen within the district. Grorud also shared that she is excited to begin this three-year partnership as she hopes the partnership will provide the district with the additional tools it needs to extend this program far into the future.
“We are extremely grateful for the opportunity to work with the University of Wisconsin and Michael on this project,” Grorud said. “To have a powerhouse in science like UW partner with us to build on what we have and really help us meet the needs of our students is meaningful. We have approximately 6,000 kids in our district that can benefit from this partnership.”
Through the WELCOME project, the School District of Beloit will be provided with the scientific equipment they need to conduct climate-related citizen science through the GLOBE program. Students within the district will also have access to presentations by scientists, mentorship on science projects, internship opportunities at the Welty Center, and scholarship opportunities. Likewise, the partnership with Achieving Collaborative Treatment will provide autistic students with additional opportunities to engage with STEM through youth summer camps. Overall, the program will aim to increase enthusiasm and perception of STEM while confronting barriers related to race, ethnicity, and neurodivergence.
“We hope to train community leaders so that they can maintain these systems beyond the grant,” said Notaro. “We hope that by participating in active, nature-based STEM learning, meeting scientists, and discovering more about STEM careers, students will become interested in science and want to pursue those careers and diversify our field, which is a real need all across the geosciences.”