Rider receives $1.45 million grant from National Science Foundation to support scholarships for STEM teachers

The grant is aimed at creating a sustainable pipeline of high school science teachers
Adam Grybowski

Rider University recently received a $1.45 million grant — one of the largest it has ever received — from the National Science Foundation that will provide scholarship support to Rider students preparing to become science teachers in high-need urban school districts. As a result, Rider will help deliver 24 much-needed high school science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) teachers to Camden, Trenton and Freehold Borough, among others, potentially impacting hundreds of high school and college students.

President Obama and the Department of Education have both recognized that too few American students pursue expertise in STEM fields, resulting in an inadequate pipeline of skilled STEM teachers. While the problem occurs across all demographics, it is particularly acute amongst minority groups.

“Unequal access to adequate K-12 STEM education in the United States is undebatable,” said Dr. Danielle Jacobs of Rider’s Chemistry, Biochemistry and Physics Department, the grant’s primary investigator who, along with Dr. Peter Hester of the Teacher Education Department, helped secure the funding and will lead the project. “Our STEM-Ed pipeline program will expand the delivery of cogent and engaging STEM subjects to traditionally underserved populations in New Jersey, and in doing so diversify the body of STEM practitioners.” 

The overall goal of this new NSF STEM-Ed program is to develop strategies for increasing the number and quality of high school science and math educators in traditionally lower income communities in New Jersey. While other institutions in New Jersey have been awarded similar NSF grants, Rider’s program targets students from Trenton and Camden in central and southern New Jersey. These heavily Latino/a school districts have been listed in the U.S. Department of Education Teacher Shortage Areas for Science since 2004. According to the most recent census, 17.7% of the New Jersey’s total population identify as Latin, Hispanic or Spanish. However, of the state’s 111,835 public school teachers, a mere 6.5% are Latino/a.

“Diversity is the key to innovation,” Jacobs said. “Differences in backgrounds, beliefs and experiences allow for different perspectives and thought processes. Unfortunately, the lack of diversity among STEM teachers in the U.S. perpetuates a dangerously homogenous workforce.”

The success of the STEM-Ed program will rely upon a unique grow-your-own (GYO) pipeline strategy, wherein the heaviest recruitment will be for candidates from the same districts to which the 24 teachers will eventually be delivered. Historically, one of the greatest problems with placing novice teachers into urban school districts such as Trenton and Camden is the high rate of attrition within just five years of placement. GYO programs are substantiated by a wealth of research showing that urban natives are far more likely to return to their hometowns, or relocate to similar communities, to teach after graduation and are 50% more likely to remain at their postings past the period required by their scholarship program.

“Graduating high-quality educators is one thing that Rider and its peer institutions already do,” Jacobs said. “What this grant does is ensures that these educators will have a sustainable, prolific impact on these high-need communities.”

Founded in 1913, Rider’s School of Education has a rich tradition of preparing students for careers as educators. Its Science Education Teacher Preparation Program currently offers 12 undergraduate and graduate courses that incorporate the Next Generation Science Standards adopted by New Jersey. Students in the program, who represent the next generation of math and science teachers, must complete both a bachelor’s degree in education as well as a bachelor’s degree in a STEM discipline to graduate.

Throughout the grant program, Rider plans to graduate three cohorts of eight STEM educators. Rider STEM-Ed scholars will receive generous financial support, including full-tuition scholarships, funding to participate in summer research opportunities, and education materials including laptops and textbook stipends.

To recruit students, the University will leverage its existing relationships with local high schools and community colleges, including its lead partner, Brookdale Community College, as well as Camden County and Rowan at Burlington County Colleges. These relationships will be particularly important in the recruitment of underrepresented students: Nearly 70% of all Hispanic college students are enrolled in two-year, as opposed to four-year, programs. Towards this end, Jacobs and her team will create bilingual and bicultural recruitment literature and workshops. Rider will also create a parallel University website in Spanish.

While the science and education curriculum that STEM-Ed scholars take will not drastically differ from what is currently offered at Rider, the grant program offers an additional layer of civic engagement to promote their retention in traditionally hard-to-staff school districts. Rider faculty and its partner county college faculty will have the opportunity to participate in professional development workshops on teaching science through civic engagement, led by the National Center for Science & Civic Engagement (NCSCE), to connect the learning of science to real-world problems at the local, national and global levels. Scholars will also be supported for at least one summer to pursue a scientific or science education research project — an immersive engagement opportunity that is rare for pre-service teachers.

"The National Center for Science & Civic Education has conducted research for many years regarding the positive impact of incorporating civic engagement in science education,” said DonnaJean Fredeen, Rider’s provost and vice president for Academic Affairs. “By 'teaching to science through capacious, complex social issues' students are constantly reminded of the impact of science in their daily lives - why they need to understand science.  This approach provides the encouragement and motivation for students to want to learn more science, to become passionate about science, and to choose science as a career."

Furthermore, STEM-Ed students will take at least one standalone course on culturally responsive classroom management (CRCM) and be placed as student teachers into Rider’s partner urban school districts.

“The civic engagement and classroom management techniques we develop as part of this grant will lead to the development of high-quality teachers while promoting their retention once in the workplace,” said Sharon Sherman, dean of Rider’s School of Education. “We hope that this, in turn, will lead to higher achievement of K-12 students and motivate more of them to choose careers in STEM.”

After graduation, new teachers will be provided with systematic induction support, which includes financial support, mentorship, and opportunities for professional development, through the Rider Science Education and Literacy Center (SELECT).

Throughout the five-year grant program, its elements and methods will be critically evaluated — both internally and externally — to assess its effectiveness and measure the overall impact of these educators. The findings will contribute to the overall body of research that describes the factors that influence excellence in new STEM teachers.

Rider University will begin accepting its first cohort of students in the fall of 2017. Scholarship support is available only to students entering their junior year. For more information, please email [email protected].