Rider's STEM Teacher Academy grooms next generation of science teachers

The academy for high school students, held July 16-27, returns for 9th consecutive year
Keith Fernbach

For the ninth consecutive year, Rider University will host a group of inquiring high school students eager to immerse themselves in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Officially known as the STEM Teacher Academy, the program was established at Rider in 2010 to increase awareness of the value and rewards of a teaching career in STEM areas.

“The idea is to have them actually do science, not just be taught definitions or theories,” says Dr. Peter Hester, an associate professor of STEM education at Rider and the director of the STEM Teacher Academy. “Our students get to experiment and ask questions and try to find answers. The goal is that this will get them excited about STEM and to encourage them to study STEM subjects, and then potentially become teachers of STEM.”

Hester further explains that because not enough time is being devoted to the teaching of STEM subjects at the elementary school level, it’s leading to a shortage of young people interested in careers in the field. “What’s happening is we’re not giving kids any background in science until they get to middle school. So by getting high school kids interested in STEM and teaching it in the ways that we think are most effective, that brings them back into the teaching pool.”

Cathryn Jolley '18, who graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Secondary Education/Biology and a Bachelor of Science in Biology, will be an instructor at the academy for the second consecutive summer. She concurs on the importance of grooming the next generation of teachers.

“So often STEM courses in high school are taught by teachers who lack experience with the material or don’t even have a STEM-related degree,” she says. “If we wish for there to be an increase in the number of students pursuing STEM careers, there must also be an increase in the number of qualified STEM teachers.“

This year’s STEM Teacher Academy will take place from July 16-27 on Rider’s campus and in the surrounding community. It is being funded by grants from Bristol-Myers Squibb and Janssen Pharmaceuticals.  The academy seeks participation by underserved students, a population that is underrepresented in STEM professions, including teaching, nationwide.  The academy can accommodate up to 18 students per year, who typically hail from the Mercer County area and are nominated by their respective schools’ STEM coordinators, science teachers, math teachers and/or guidance counselors.

Over the course of 10 sessions, participants are immersed in a series of individual, small group and whole group studies, ranging across STEM-based topics, including: Science (decomposition, skull identification, climate science, forensics, river ecology and history), Technology (thermology, telemetry and presentation tools), Engineering (building equipment for experiments) and Mathematics (calculating the size of maggot masses based on field observations).

According to Jolley, a key objective of the academy is to promote the mindset that “science is best learned through doing actual science.” She adds that “actual science is messy, flexible, collaborative and driven by curiosity. It is grounded in math and made possible by technology and engineering.  The academy reflects all of this and more.”

One of the highlights of the academy every year is a decomposition study involving two pig carcasses. The carcasses are placed in two differing conditions (for example, one might be placed in sunlight and the other in shade). They’re then put in boxes covered by screens so that nothing can get in except insects.

"The idea is to watch the process of decomposition, which is really sort of an ecological succession problem,” says Hester. “What happens is the flies land and lay their eggs. The eggs develop into maggots, which eat the flesh of the pig. Then beetles arrive to eat the flesh of the pig and also to consume some of the maggots. Wasps arrive to eat the flesh, to eat the maggots, and to eat a beetle or two, and then larger wasps arrive to eat the wasps that are eating the beetles that are eating the maggots. So literally within four days, you have four or five layers of ecological complexity.”

Hester adds that, “The reason we do this is not because it's icky, although that does help, but it’s something that we can do in a short period of time. The decomposition process takes eight days to go from a carcass to bones.”

Another area of focus during the academy is climate science. Dr. Dan Druckenbrod, a professor specializing in forest ecology at Rider, takes the students on a walking tour of the woods on the school’s campus, where he demonstrates how the landscape has changed as land use shifted from agricultural to residential.

At one point on the tour, the students come across a row of trees that appear to be growing at an unusual angle. “It turns out that those trees used to be on the edge of a plowed field,” Hester explains, “and they’re growing at a 45-degree angle to try to get light. Even though that field hasn’t been there in years, the environment still shows the impact that having an open field there had.”&

In a forensics-themed lesson dubbed “Who Killed SpongeBob SquarePants?” students participate in a hands-on activity that simulates the forensic analysis of a murder scene. The scenario consists of “SpongeBob” found dead on a beach, with a horseshoe crab tail sticking out of his back. Maggots (uncooked pasta) are covering his body. Utilizing standard procedures used by forensic entomologists, students collect maggot samples, identify the species, determine their average length and then utilize weather data and growth curves to determine the post-mortem interval in order to narrow down the list of possible suspects.

During the first week of the academy, students come up with a scientific question they’ll look to study over the course of the two weeks. At the completion of the program, they deliver what Hester describes as “a mini TED Talk” to peers, family and faculty, in which they share their research and key learnings. “They get up and explain what their question was, how they collected data, how they interpret those data, and what their results mean.”

One student who was so inspired by his summer experience that she decided to attend Rider when she graduated from Lawrence High School.   Kasmir Grapski originally wanted to be an elementary school teacher, but after spending time in the academy at Rider, she says, “I realized secondary education science was my true dream job.”

She is now a rising senior at Rider, with a double major in secondary education and geoscience. This summer she will be returning to the academy as an instructor. Just as her earlier experience influenced her decision to become a science teacher, she is hoping to have a similar impact on this year’s attendees. “I remember the Rider student who was an instructor while I was a student was extremely passionate and motivating,” she recalls. “I’m looking forward to inspiring at least one of the students this summer to pursue a STEM teaching career.”

Beyond the learning, what Hester finds most rewarding is the feeling of camaraderie that develops among the attendees. “They love science and they’re hungry to talk about it, but they don’t have many opportunities. We give them that social experience, whether it’s with their peers or their professors, or the leaders of the workshops. We all have this common bond. I mean, how many people can you sit around and talk to about a decaying pig?”

Information about the Rider University’s STEM Teacher Academy can be found at