In a small set of offices inside the Campus Religious Center resides one of the more far-reaching research centers at Illinois State University. The Center for Mathematics, Science, and Technology (CeMaST) has been researching and conducting outreach in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education since 1991.
CeMaST organizes research events on campus targeted to high school students, develops curriculum and training for STEM teachers throughout Illinois, and works with university units on grant-funded research projects nationwide. An example of CeMaST collaborating on a research project is that the unit is acting as the education and outreach arm for the recently awarded $10 million United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)-funded pennycress project, which involves several Midwest universities. (Read more about that project on Page 12.)
Dr. Rebekka Darner, associate professor of biology education, took over as director of the center last year. Darner had previously served as the CeMaST’s assistant director for underrepresented groups. She now oversees a unit with a dozen staff members, most of whose positions are funded through grants. In the following Q&A, Darner talked about the center’s role on campus and plans for the future.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What do you see as the mission of the center?
Essentially, we have three goals. The first is to help enable the broader impacts of the research that is happening on campus. That means, in whatever way it needs to happen, we help with STEM education and outreach into the community. Our second goal is to help enable the implementation of evidence-based teaching practices in STEM classrooms. That’s not just here at ISU, but that’s also in K–12 STEM classrooms. Then our third goal is to serve communities that have been traditionally underserved by mainstream STEM education. STEM fields suffer when we don’t have equal representation of our diverse society. Part of our mission is to address that by providing opportunity where there is marginalization or minoritization of certain groups of people in STEM.
So those are our three goals. And what that looks like is that we do a lot of STEM education programming, both on campus and beyond.
Is there anything that you want to do new or different as the director?
CeMaST has quite a presence statewide because CeMaST has been very involved in professional development of teachers and in the writing of curricula. My vision includes having a greater presence on campus where we are seen as the go-to center if someone needs someone to collaborate with. I think that’s perhaps how my vision is a little bit different.
Also, we are a designated research center by the Illinois Board of Higher Education, and I take that term “research” to heart, because I feel like all of our activities, need to be evidence-based and evidence-driven. When we help new faculty, for example, we need to figure out how to implement evidence-based teaching practices in their classroom. It also means when we develop new programming that we evaluate the efficacy of it.
This is not to say that this hasn’t happened in the past, but I think a lot of the focus in the past has been on curriculum development, which is field-tested a lot. But curriculum development very seldom overlaps with faculty research interests. And so as we are starting to think more about supporting faculty research interests, the field testing becomes less of the focus and more of the focus is on evaluating learning that happens in the context of those outreach activities that are enabled by the research projects.
What outreach is CeMaST doing?
Traditionally speaking a lot of CeMaST outreach has been the providing of professional development for STEM teachers all throughout the state. We run a few programs that I would classify as outreach, although I would argue that they still support our research endeavors on campus. One of them is the Illinois Summer Research Academy. And that’s the one that brings high schoolers here for a week to work in faculty members’ labs and being mentored as they do authentic research in their areas of interest. And so we have faculty members from computer science, biology, mathematics, chemistry who all participate in the Academy.
Another one is that we put on the High School Research Symposium every spring. Teams of high schoolers come from all over the state in order to present the research that they’ve done in their high school classrooms. We judge their poster presentations, we show them what it’s like to be on a college campus, and the judges provide valuable feedback on their presentations.
Is the center still doing the Smart Grid program as well?
Yes, we’ve just got funded for another year. And basically, the goal of Smart Grid is to teach kids K through 12, and hopefully their parents too, about making wise energy decisions in their home. And we’re starting to turn toward also energy-related careers. We’ve essentially constructed these sets that go out to schools. There’s a curriculum that accompanies the set, and teachers can get trained on teaching with the curriculum in the set, and then once they do that, they can check out the sets and we ship them to their schools.
How does CeMaST support faculty research on campus?
The pennycress project is a good example of how we support the research that’s happening on campus. With that particular project, the goal is to improve pennycress dramatically so that it is viable as a cash cover crop for farmers to diversify their economic portfolio. But right now pennycress has a bad rap. It’s seen as a weed; it’s something that farmers spray for. And if they’re ever going to be convinced that it should be something that they should purposefully plant on their fields then there needs to be education and outreach to build that bridge. And so, CeMaST is part of that grant, in which we are writing 4-H curricula, teaching 4-H SPIN (Special Interest) Clubs, testing the efficacy of those SPIN Clubs, and also making use of agricultural lessons that are already out there in the ether and really adapting them for cover crops or adapting them to highlight the potential of pennycress.
All of that work occurs here with CeMaST staff. And what that does is it enables big projects like the (pennycress) project to have people whose expertise is in STEM education really committed to that goal of the project, rather than the geneticists and the graduate students being pulled away from the science in order to do the outreach.