Innovative Collaboration equals success for Award-winning STEM Starters+ Program

Dr. Ann Robinson.

Researchers at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the Museum of Science, Boston, are being recognized for the success of their collaborative project to bring engineering curricula coupled with biographies of famous scientists and engineers to elementary school students in Arkansas. 

STEM Starters+ is a five-year, $2.5 million research and demonstration funded by the U.S. Department of Education. It began with researchers introducing talent spotting, engineering curricula, and engaging biographies into four Arkansas school districts with high rates of culturally diverse and low-income children. Those school districts included Cabot, El Dorado, Little Rock, and the Pulaski County Special School District.

Dr. Ann Robinson, director of the Jodie Mahony Center for Gifted Education at UA Little Rock, led the project as principal investigator in collaboration with Dr. Christine Cunningham of the Museum of Science, Boston. She was joined by project director Kristy Kidd of UA Little Rock and external evaluator Dr. Jill Adelson of the Talent Identification Program (TIP) at Duke University.

Studies conducted by the collaborators have shown that students who participate in the STEM Starters+ not only develop a greater understanding of engineering, but they also learn more science and are more highly engaged in learning. Teachers learn to spot academic talents in increased numbers of primary-grade students.

“In K-12 education, we often measure success by achievement, but we should also measure our effectiveness by how engaged children are,” Robinson said. “This project has engaged children and teachers profoundly. That is how you know you have hit the sweet spot, when learning is fun, collaborative, and creative and improves science scores and engineering knowledge. It is wonderful when classroom experiences increase engagement for teachers and students.”

Robinson, Adelson, and Cunningham recently learned they received the Senior Investigator Research Paper Award from the Mensa Foundation. The foundation’s Awards for Excellence in Research are given internationally for outstanding research on intelligence, intellectual giftedness, and related fields.

In April, the researchers received the Michael Pyryt Collaboration Award at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association in New York City for their paper, “A Talent for Tinkering: Developing Talents in Children From Low-Income Households Through Engineering Curriculum.” The award recognizes the work of a scholar who researches giftedness and an influential collaborator who has no previously published scholarship associated with giftedness, creativity, or talent.

Dr. Christine Cunningham
Dr. Christine Cunningham

Additionally, the Jodie Mahony Center and the STEM Starters+ program were featured in a short film on exemplary programs produced last year by the National Science Teachers Association.

The Cabot School District, one of four districts in Arkansas to collaborate with UA Little Rock, has seen tremendous success with the STEM Starters+ program. First-grade and gifted and talented education specialists at Westside Elementary, Southside Elementary, Magness Creek Elementary, and Cabot Middle School South were trained to implement the STEM Starters+ Project.

“The level of engagement from our students while using these units has been remarkable,” said Aaron Randolph, director of Gifted and Advanced Placement Programs at Cabot Public Schools. “Due to the success we’ve had implementing this curricula into our five targeted schools, our G/T program will be implementing one EiE unit per grade level for the 2018-19 school year.”

STEM Starters+ teachers receive a biography of an engineer, inventor, or scientist whose ideas are linked to the EiE units. Additionally, teachers receive a curriculum guide, “Blueprints for Biography,” which includes complex discussion questions, enrichment activities, and a science investigation or engineering design challenge.

“If young children can ‘see’ the scientist or engineer, they respond so much better to the research behind the life,” Robinson said. “We took interesting trade biographies and then created teacher curriculum guides. ‘Blueprints for Biography’ shows kids the life behind the invention or the life behind the discovery and makes engineering and science very personal for children.”

Some examples of the Engineering is Elementary units included in the STEM Starters+ project are “Sounds Like Fun: Seeing Animal Sounds,” which focuses on the design of a visual representation for various bird sounds, as well as “Lighten Up: Designing Lighting Systems,” which culminates with the design and creation of a lighting system for a tomb of hieroglyphs.

“I love the structure and flow of the lessons,” said Joyce Dalton, a gifted and talented education specialist at Southside Elementary. “My students love the content and hands-on experiences. From discovering how real scientists look, to learning about what engineers do and don’t do, to meeting a real engineer, I see my students making progress in so many ways. They come to think of themselves as engineers because they are thinking like engineers. I see excitement as they build the projects and test them, and I see impressive science scores on the state test.”

Aaron Randolph
Aaron Randolph

Kristy Kidd, Dr. Christine Deitz, and other staff members from the Jodie Mahony Center hosted trainings and workshops for Cabot educators focusing on the curricular components of STEM Starters+ as well as the use of the components to identify and develop talent in young students. The Museum of Science, Boston developed the engineering units used in the STEM Starters+ project. The EiE units use a cross disciplinary and hands-on approach to introduce the engineering design process to elementary students.

Robinson attributes the success of STEM Starters+ to the development of an effective collaboration among teachers, researchers, educational specialists, school districts, and agencies to establish effective STEM opportunities in schools.

“This collaboration was a perfect match of enthusiasm, expertise, and commitment. It just shows how powerful collaboration can be when it works,” Robinson said. “Dr. Cunningham brought her wealth of knowledge in engineering education. The Mahony Center brought its developed curriculum and teacher training knowledge. Our research methodologist, Dr. Jill Adelson, brought an understanding of early childhood education and a really powerful skill set for the analysis of classroom data in rigorously designed field studies. The final collaborators are our very effective school administrators who go above and beyond what a research and demonstration project requires. Leadership is what makes this collaboration work.”

The program is currently in the fifth year of its research and development cycle, but two of the participating school districts have already expanded the program to additional schools.

“At this phase of the project, we have worked with four school districts, and two school districts took the project district wide rather than in experimental schools only,” Robinson said. “You want projects like this to have a life beyond federal funding. Collaboration with school partners allows STEM Starters+ to be sustainable. I have no doubt that our partnership will continue to collaborate long beyond the life of the current grant. With universities, schools, and a museum working together, kids and teachers benefit from educational innovation.”

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