Beth Ultis on Boise State University's Service-Learning Program

Boise State University's Service-Learning Program has recently taken on a unique educational project: they've partnered with nearby K-12 teachers to help bring the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) into elementary and high school classrooms. AmeriCorps worker Beth Ultis talked with Learn.org about the program's goals, methods and potential expansion.

Boise State

Learn.org: What's your name, and what's your relationship to Boise State's service-learning program?

Beth Ultis: My name is Beth Ultis, and I'm a VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America - part of AmeriCorps) serving with the Boise State Service-Learning Program.

Learn.org How did the idea to partner Boise State STEM students and faculty with K-12 teachers come about?

BU: It was a combination of overlapping factors. One of the goals of the Boise State Service-Learning Program has been to promote service-learning in K-12 classrooms in the Boise area. In addition, the program received grant funds to promote service-learning in the STEM disciplines. On top of that, several of our Boise State STEM faculty had expressed an interest in working with K-12 teachers in the area. It seemed like a natural fit to put each of those elements together and assist with encouraging the use of service-learning methods in addition to building collaborative partnerships between Boise State STEM faculty and K-12 teachers.

Learn.org How far does this program reach? Is it just the Boise school district, or all of Idaho? And are there any plans for expansion?

BU: The program's still in the early building stages, so currently the majority of our participating K-12 teachers are located in the Boise area, near the university. We're working to expand these partnerships to include additional Ada and Canyon County K-12 schools in order to reach a wider and more diverse range of schools and programs.

Learn.org What might a sample K-12 STEM classroom activity look like?

BU: There are many sample activities in the STEM disciplines, but let's use biology as an example. Boise State biology students could help younger students learn about sagebrush ecosystems using a traveling 'sagebrush trunk' filled with touchable things. The young students could then talk about the items in the trunk, trying to guess where they might be found and what environment the plants might need to survive. This activity would allow the K-12 students to interact with scientific principles, formulate hypotheses and discuss sagebrush ecology in a way that's fun and engaging and piques their curiosity.

Learn.org At first thought, teaching kindergartners the principles of engineering seems like a Herculean task. Do you find, generally, that young children are receptive to the STEM disciplines?

BU: Many of our discussions with faculty have been about how to effectively engage young audiences in STEM-related presentations. Young students are definitely a different audience than college students, but we're working to develop curriculum resources that are interactive, engaging and fun. Children are typically eager to learn, provided that the material is relevant to their lives and is presented in a way that's fun and exciting. Whether the topic is engineering, chemistry or biology, our goal is to make the STEM disciplines come alive and show young students how STEM can relate to their everyday lives. If we can tap into the natural curiosity and enthusiasm that children have, we can definitely get them excited about STEM disciplines.

Learn.org Boise State supports K-12 teachers beyond classroom instruction, including a summer institute. What kind of things do you hope those teachers retain from your interaction?

BU: Our goal in the Service-Learning Program is to help our faculty (and K-12 teacher partners) learn new, innovative and engaging methods of teaching their students using service-learning. Our hope is that these teachers will gain a greater understanding of how their field, skills and teaching methods can be used to encourage students to be more engaged in their own learning and to support and improve the community that they live in.

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