We are working
hard on this. We have to get it right. It's really cool and fun. I think I want to do this work when I grow up.
A fifth-grade scientist in the EcoSTARs program

The Science of Education - SCAN: June 2010
Read more about EcoSTARS in "STEM Takes
Root: The Science of Education"
in SCAN, the
magazine of St. Catherine University
February 2010

EcoSTARS: Partnering with Schools

STEM learning activities abound for elementary teachers and their K-6 students – in textbooks, on websites, supplied by business and industry, from non-profits, shared by colleagues. They are colorful, engaging and filled with discovery-based lessons.

Learning materials are essential. However, EcoSTARS provides much more. It is a comprehensive professional development program that empowers teachers and future teachers to develop STEM expertise using a Clinical Cluster Site (CCS) model.

STEM professional development

Broadly, a professional development school refers to a school–university relationship that engages in the preparation of new teachers. At the National Center for STEM Elementary Education we have honed the definition by articulating specific roles and responsibilities for the faculty at both the University and partner elementary schools. We have defined a structure that includes collaboration, reflection, assessment and continuous improvement.

Our ultimate goal is to greatly improve teaching practices for teachers in the field and those preparing to teach, and to enhance student achievement. At St. Catherine we use the CCS model for both literacy and STEM education in all teacher preparation programs for anyone seeking an initial K-6 teaching license.

Getting started

St. Catherine University is one of the first colleges or universities in the nation to apply a professional development school model to STEM elementary education. We got started in 2005 with a generous grant from the Jeffers Foundation and additional support from the H.B. Fuller, Xcel and CenturyLink (formerly Qwest) foundations.

St. Catherine, in this same time frame, was examining ways to better prepare our students for student teaching. We wanted to reduce the time spent getting acclimated to the elementary school environment – classroom management, daily schedules, supplies, curriculum materials – and maximize time spent in the practice of teaching – planning lessons, leading learning activities, assessing the results and planning for improvement. Plus, we wanted to place more emphasis on the development of STEM teaching skills.

Enter the CCS model, funding for the development of the EcoSTARS program and an enthusiastic, environmentally focused partner school, Jeffers Pond Elementary in the Prior-Lake Savage, Minnesota, school district.

How EcoSTARS works

EcoSTARS is based on a strong, collaborative team comprised of a St. Catherine education faculty member, a classroom teacher and a St. Kate's education major. Typically, it takes place during the year preceding student teaching. Over five weeks, the St. Catherine student, with support from her team, plans and delivers a full unit of instruction focusing on environmental education.

At Jeffers Pond, for instance, St. Kate's students guide 5th graders through a study of soil, a major natural resource that supports life on earth. As part of their study, the young scientists take a variety of soil samples near the school using protocols developed by GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment), a worldwide scientific education initiative that shares data with researchers around the world. Students can compare the data they've gathered about water levels, nitrates and soil horizons to data gathered in the same area last year.

Over 100 countries are involved in GLOBE, engaging K–12 students worldwide as they do real science, collect data and share it via a website. St. Catherine students are first introduced to the GLOBE curriculum as part of their STEM certificate coursework. They gain hands-on practice using it with children during EcoSTARS, and they often serve as a mentor to the classroom teacher who may be using GLOBE protocols for the first time.

Readiness for student teaching

EcoSTARS provides a rich experiential base for our students long before they student teach. They become comfortable in classrooms and at ease with children. They have learned much about their personal teaching style and worked collaboratively on a team with teachers at the school and their professors. Their confidence in teaching STEM concepts soars.

University-school partnerships

Through EcoSTARS, elementary school partners and the University are sharing responsibility for teacher candidate preparation, faculty development and student learning. New roles and relationships have formed among faculty from both institutions as they build long-term working relationships. St. Kate's students become deeply involved in teaching STEM concepts and are often the ones introducing classroom teachers to powerful STEM teaching tools. And, classroom teachers are helping make sure our students are well prepared for their upcoming student-teaching experience.

Program expansion

The EcoSTARS program now includes both urban and suburban schools in three schoool districts: Prior-Lake Savage, Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. We welcome opportunities to talk to other schools districts and/or institutions of higher education about how we have implemented EcoSTARS using a professional development school model. Email stem@stkate.edu to start the conversation.