How can we improve STEM learning outcomes? WMU professor wins $1.3M NSF award to find out

Contact: Nicole Leffler
A boy plays with an engineering toy.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Research is underway at Western Michigan University that could impact science, technology, engineering and mathematics—STEM—teaching and improve learning outcomes in multiple states. The National Science Foundation awarded Dr. Jessaca Spybrook, professor of evaluation, measurement and research, a $1,328,108 grant for her project entitled “Improving Evaluations of STEM Programs: An Empirical Investigation of Key Design Parameters.”

“I am extremely excited that the National Science Foundation is supporting this work. Over the past decade we have seen tremendous growth in the quality and rigor of studies seeking to test the efficacy of STEM interventions,” says Spybrook, whose research will build on work completed through several previous NSF grants focused on improving the design of large-scale studies to assess the impact of STEM interventions in K-12 settings. “This work will continue to help us design better studies and expand what we learn from these studies to not just whether or not an intervention works, but for whom and under what conditions.”

Dr. Jessaca Spybrook

In order to improve K-12 outcomes, it is critical to understand the complex landscape of the STEM learning environment. Students, teachers and principals all contribute to the environment and to differences in student achievement.

“It is very exciting to see Dr. Spybrook expand on her past work and collaborate with colleagues at the RAND Corporation and NORC at the University of Chicago,” says Dr. Terri Goss Kinzy, vice president for research and innovation at WMU. She points out a unique feature of the project that examines how math and science achievement vary across student, teacher, school and district characteristics. “This work uses the data systems that allow the team to look over time at educational systems in three states, including Michigan.  Work that advances more children to STEM excellence will help develop the workforce of the future here in Michigan and across the country.”

“Much of the prior research ignored the teacher level and thus it was not possible to assess how much student STEM achievement varied across teachers,” adds Spybrook, pointing out that a teacher’s preparation and certification route—whether traditional or alternative—could have a direct impact on student achievement. That information is crucial to help administrators properly allocate resources. “Administrators might allocate more resources to teachers from alternative routes (e.g. matching them with more experienced teachers, providing them specific professional development opportunities) in order to reduce the variation in student outcomes attributed to differences at the teacher level.”

In addition to helping the field better understand the K-12 STEM learning environment, the findings from this study directly inform the design of studies that seek to test the efficacy of STEM interventions in K-12 settings.

This project is funded by the EHR Core Research program, which supports work that advances fundamental research on STEM learning and learning environments, broadening participation in STEM and STEM workforce development. Funding is also provided by the Discovery Research K-12 program, which supports the research and development of innovative resources, models and tools in order to enhance STEM learning and teaching by pre-K-12 students and teachers.

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