A statewide STEM initiative strengthens K–12 educator pathways

Arizona STEM Acceleration Projects
January 10, 2024

Arizona is rapidly becoming a global center for high-tech industry and manufacturing, and with this mobilization comes a need for an educated STEM workforce and stronger K12 academic pathways. Too often, however, schools are challenged with a lack of STEM-prepared educators who can meet this growing need to support students feeling overwhelmed by math and science concepts.

To address that challenge, the $10 million Arizona STEM Acceleration Project (ASAP) is supporting the professional development of 900 K12 STEM teachers throughout the state. Participating educators receive lesson planning resources, participate in a network learning hub and have developed more than 1,500 high-quality STEM lesson plans to support student learning, available via an online portal to teachers everywhere. After all, math and science becomes a lot more tangible when students use it to build a leprechaun trap or a sustainable city of the future using an engineering design process.

 ASAP which is seeking funding to continue growing is a collaborative project between ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination and Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. The team leads are Ruth Wylie, associate research professor with MLFTC and assistant director at CSI, and Michael Vargas and Amanda Whitehurst, who are both co-principal investigators of the grant.

The effort involves partnerships with a wide range of higher education institutions and STEM-focused organizations throughout the state. An estimated 90,000 students have benefited during the project’s first year, and as the grant concludes its second year, the project leads are looking for ways to keep the effort going strong.

“This project is critical to the state’s future because our ability to integrate STEM learning at the K12 level affects both the number of STEM graduates from Arizona’s universities and the number of residents qualified to work in STEM fields,” Wylie said. “We also see a potential to expand these efforts nationally to help other states strengthen their own STEM pathways.”

A need for stronger STEM pathways

ASAP is funded through the American Rescue Funds for AZ, provided to address learning gaps experienced by students during the COVID-19 crisis. Interest in the effort continues to build as the demand persists for quality STEM education statewide and nationally.

Between 2011 and 2021, the national STEM workforce grew by 5.9 million, from 29 million to 34.9 million, representing a 20 percent increase, according to federal data, and attracting students to STEM fields particularly those of diverse backgrounds is a cornerstone of federal policy as outlined in Raise the Bar: STEM Excellence for All Students initiative

STEM is also increasingly important to economies such as in Arizona, which is seeing growth in the semiconductor and aerospace engineering industries, to name a few. 

Expanding STEM pathways also means making the profession more inclusive demographically, which is what the Center for Broadening Participation in STEM at ASU is addressing, as researchers at MLFTC explore projects aimed at promoting greater inclusion in STEM fields at the K12 level. The ASAP initiative aids these efforts by supporting professional development for educators in rural and under-resourced schools.

Partnerships vital to success

“Partnerships have been essential to reaching our project goals,” Whitehurst said. “In order to quickly scale this initiative, we worked closely with other higher education organizations and STEM-focused groups to make sure that these professional development opportunities were accessible to educators throughout the state.”

The team worked with colleagues from the University of Arizona, Grand Canyon University and  Northern Arizona University to hold professional development workshops. The ASAP team also reviewed and vetted lesson plans developed by the educators. As a result, during the first year alone, the project has reached 317 schools in 114 districts, providing more than $3 million in stipend payments for STEM fellows so that they could invest their time in creating lesson plans and attending professional development workshops. 

In addition, ASAP continues to build out collaborations with other organizations, such as the Arizona Department of Air Quality, the Maricopa County STEM Office and the Arizona Parks Service, where teacher fellows are helping to integrate STEM concepts into the agencies’ youth lesson plans to more effectively integrate STEM concepts. In turn, teachers get insight into regional STEM career pathways that may lead to student opportunities. 

Online portal hosts hundreds of STEM lesson plans

The project aims to both support teacher retention in STEM fields, and provide resources to make STEM lessons more accessible to a wider group of educators. As part of the program, each ASAP STEM fellow completes 30 hours of STEM professional development, and creates four lesson plans reviewed by ASAPto ensure their alignment with learning standards. 

“I was able to take those ideas and techniques and come back feeling inspired and refreshed,” said Amanda Sibley, a science educator at South Valley Junior High in Gilbert, whose lesson plans included exploring Newton’s second law of motion through the physics of skiing using LEGO bricks. “My classroom, my students and my school are so much better for all of it.”

Hundreds of lesson plans created by teachers such as Siblay are now available to educators anywhere through the online ASAP lesson plan library. Examples include:

  • At Kino Junior High School, Nancy Parra-Quinlan used flight simulators, model rockets and experiments with propulsion to foster student interest in aerospace concepts and careers.
  • At Crane Middle School, Elizabeth Colton engaged her students in coding, creating battle rings for their robots, and designing features and upgrades for their robots.
  • At Pinnacle High School, Nathan Stump had his students explore the process of gene-editing technology by simulating the process of the first scientists discovering CRISPR-Cas defense system.

As interest in the project has grown from educators nationally, ASAP team members recently shared their project findings before an ad hoc committee of The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that was interested in learning more about exemplary examples of STEM initiatives. 

Lessons Learned: Charting a K-12 STEM future 

As the ASAP project completes its final year in 2024, efforts are underway to secure future funding and to further integrate the project’s approaches to support STEM teacher retention and recruitment.

The team sees an opportunity to advance STEM education through collaborative team-teaching models that encourage interdisciplinary collaboration among educators. In fact, some of the ASAP educators came from areas such as music and art, and now they are integrating lesson plans that incorporate STEM approaches. 

New staffing models are also emerging that could support greater STEM integration. MLFTC’s Next Education Workforce initiative is supporting the development of team-teaching models and teacher satisfaction and retention efforts in collaboration with schools around the country. At Westwood High School in Mesa, where one of the ASAP teachers is based, the school has customized this Next Education Workforce model so that each group of 150 ninth graders has a core team of 5-8 educators that includes a math teacher and a biology teacher, an approach that fosters integrated lesson planning. 

“What we have found is when a teacher is able to develop a connection with a STEM-focused organization or teacher then they are far more likely to try something new and outside of their comfort zone,” said Vargas, co-principal investigator of the grant. “This program has given us insight into ways we can strengthen STEM pathways for educators and the students they serve.”