Mississippi State earth and space scientists-in-training are collaborating with middle and high school teachers, teaching local students and learning how to communicate complicated concepts.
The university's INSPIRE program, an acronym for Initiating New Science Partnerships in Rural Education, is sponsored by a five-year National Science Foundation Graduate K-12 grant. INSPIRE brings MSU graduate students together with Golden Triangle area teachers in an effort to enhance instruction of STEM: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
"One of the most important things that has occurred is that students have this opportunity to enhance their education and get experience in managing projects while interacting with real people," said Bill Cooke, interim head of the MSU geosciences department. "Because our students don't typically get this kind of opportunity, this is a great advantage to the program itself."
During the spring 2014 semester, 13 students are serving as INSPIRE Fellows. Working with them are Deb Pounders and Patricia Cochran, seventh- and eighth-grade teachers at Columbus Middle School; Kelli Dawkins and Brenda Jackson, 10th-12th-grade teachers of chemistry, physics and biology at Starkville High School; and Nathan DuFour, geometry, algebra and physics teacher at Columbus High School.
The MSU students develop and deliver lesson plans for individual classrooms. Lessons often incorporate new technologies, and the MSU fellows show the teachers how to apply them.
Sarah Radencic, MSU geosciences project coordinator, said successful lesson plans are then posted online for middle and high school teachers to use independently.
"The fellows are enhancing their communication about STEM research," she said. "They're learning how to use less technical terms and break their research down for the general public. Fellows gain an idea of how to simplify science and engineering to people who won't understand jargon."
In its fourth year, INSPIRE brings applied science to local classrooms because researching MSU students are working closely with teachers and allowing them to participate in the projects, said Darrel Schmitz, principal investigator for INSPIRE.
"Several teams have gotten to travel internationally," said the MSU geosciences professor. "We've sent four to Poland, and we've had two go to England and two to Australia. We've had one go to the Bahamas.
"They have reason to go because they have to create a lesson that brings the experience back to the classroom," Schmitz explained. "Going international shows students how the lesson ties in not just locally, but is applicable to the whole world. Then, kids begin to understand that, through STEM, they have the opportunity to travel the world and apply science worldwide."
Based on surveys Radencic conducted, students participating in INSPIRE fellows' classes are getting more excited about STEM sciences.
"Students have commented that they didn't know science could be used in the ways they're seeing it in the classrooms," she said. "Many have talked about studying it in college, so we think we are impacting students positively."
For more about MSU's INSPIRE program, visit http://www.gk12.msstate.edu.