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Noyce Educational Community Stays Connected Virtually

A person with a face mask sits before a computer screen showing Zoom
Current and future teachers, including those in the Noyce program, are turning online for professional development, training and community-building. | Alliance for Excellent Education CC BY-NC 4.0

As many teachers rise to the challenge of instructing their students virtually, the educators and researchers who contribute to the training of those teachers as part of the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program are investigating how best to prepare science and math teachers virtually. Noyce program participants are also rethinking how to come together as a community in service of their shared goals: supporting students and professionals in science, technology, engineering and mathematics as they become math and science teachers in K-12 classrooms.

“This year is going to be one of the toughest years ever for Noyce, but we can get through it and we can find really good ways to continue to be a community that truly contributes to STEM teacher education in the most amazing ways,” said Karen Keene, one of the Noyce program’s co-leads at the National Science Foundation.

The Noyce program provides scholarships and fellowships to STEM majors who go into teaching and to experienced “master” teachers; the program also funds researchers studying relevant issues like science education, teacher recruitment and retention. The program particularly focuses on high-need school districts: those districts where teacher turnover rates are high, few teachers hold STEM degrees and high percentages of students live below the poverty line.

Since 2009, the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s STEM Education Program has teamed with the NSF’s Division of Undergraduate Education to organize gatherings for more than 5,000 members of the Noyce community. In the midst of a pandemic, AAAS and NSF planned a pair of virtual events – providing a host of resources and spurring conversations and collaborations that have continued throughout the first half of a challenging school year.

Annual Summit Moves Online

“The current state of the world has renewed our focus on the importance of equity in education for all communities, regardless of ZIP code, family lineage, demographic background, financial status, race, ethnicity or gender class,” said NSF Program Director Sandra Richardson at the 2020 Virtual Noyce Summit in August.

The summit brought together more than 375 attendees virtually under the banner “Centering Equity to Humanize the Process of Coming Back Together,” a theme explored in depth by keynote speaker David E. Kirkland.

The U.S. education system is fundamentally racist, said Kirkland, an associate professor at New York University and executive director of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. “When we look at educational disparities, those who glean opportunity and those who do not, we see a divide between the privileged and the vulnerable, and it so happens that the vulnerable overrepresent bodies that are black and brown and indigenous and less economically advantaged,” said Kirkland.

“I think it would be an understatement to say that we are living through life-changing and challenging times,” he added, noting that we face multiple pandemics simultaneously: the health crisis precipitated by COVID-19, but also social and economic crises borne most strongly by the vulnerable.

Yet these challenges offer an opportunity to pause and make space for healing in education, Kirkland advised.

“We don’t want to go back to normal. We want things to improve,” he said. Before returning to their curricula, educators should focus on welcoming and affirming students to make the classroom “a site of joy” by prioritizing listening to their needs. Similarly, teacher education programs need to focus on listening to the communities where future teachers will enter the classroom, he said.

Noyce Program Hosts New “Block Party” for PIs

Many of these conversations about centering students’ needs in challenging times were also at the forefront during the Noyce PI Summer Block Party – a new type of gathering for 2020, according to Jennifer Carinci, a program director for STEM Education Research at AAAS. The block party, held in July specifically for principal investigators of Noyce-funded grants, was “a community-building affair” and an opportunity for PIs and co-PIs to ask questions of NSF program staff, welcome new PIs to the Noyce program and share lessons learned from their work on teacher training and retention, Carinci said.

Paige Evans, a Noyce PI from the University of Houston, shared a key lesson with block party attendees: “Adapt when needed.”

The University of Houston students who are in training to be STEM educators typically take part in a STEM summer camp to gain experience working with middle school students, she said. This year, they brought Teach Houston STEM Interactive online. The three-week course reached 3,000 participants and provided 31 interns with valuable experience with online instruction, said Evans.

The future educators also learned important lessons about helping their students connect with STEM, Evans said. She relayed one Noyce participant’s comments: “Include all students’ backgrounds within the lessons and activities. It helps students to feel included and allows them to relate to the project being taught.”

Kathleen Bergin, a Noyce program director at NSF, told block party attendees, “I thank you for seizing the opportunity today and in the future Noyce virtual summit opportunities to connect and network with other Noyce PIs all to advance our shared work of developing and supporting amazing STEM teachers who are armed with toolkits of justice and success for each and every student they have the privilege to teach.”

This shift to virtual gatherings has involved significant feedback from the Noyce community, according to Carinci. Prior to the summer’s events, organizers surveyed Noyce community members to see what they most hoped to gain from the gatherings, she said. Respondents hoped for chances for connection and discussion, especially with peers from other institutions. In addition to moving existing Noyce Summit highlights online, event organizers also sought to create opportunities for the type of interactions that would ordinarily have taken place between in-person sessions by creating an ongoing chat box for Virtual Noyce Summit participants. To replicate the interactions of an in-person poster session, organizers created a “gallery walk” where attendees could browse presentations on their own time or connect via Zoom with presenters.

Noyce organizers offered opportunities for deeper discussions, too. At the Block Party, for instance, they cultivated conversation in two types of breakout rooms: one led by NSF program directors and another for peer-guided conversation.

Responses from the Community

The feedback from the virtual Noyce events was positive, with attendees reporting feeling a sense of unity within the community, according to data from the events.

Attendee Meltem Alemdar, a Noyce research PI, enjoyed being able to connect with her fellow research PIs at the block party and to connect with a broader range of Noyce community members at the virtual summit.

“I learned more about people's projects more than, I think, in person,” said Alemdar, associate director and principal research scientist at Georgia Institute of Technology’s Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics and Computing.

AAAS has continued the momentum with several other virtual events in the fall, including a September webinar that partnered AAAS with the STEM Teacher Leadership Network on strategies for online and hybrid learning and another webinar in October to get the facts out about teacher recruitment.

Said Carinci, “It’s really nice to see the seeds of things that might happen as actions as a result of this.”