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Pulling STEM out of compartments and into students’ everyday lives

Gillian Roehrig is literally going extra miles to prepare the next generation to thrive amid ever more sophisticated science and technology.

Gillian Roehrig

Think about it. We are surrounded by science lessons if we choose to see Minnesota in that context.

Ice fishing? Arguably crazy, but loaded with opportunities for examining the properties of cold water and its impact on fish. Genuine Minnesota wild rice? Potentially vulnerable to climate change. Weather? A Minnesota obsession that never fails to yield insights about nature.

Professor Gillian Roehrig is on a drive to engage kids in that real-world science.

Reaching far beyond her responsibilities as co-director of the STEM Education Center at the University of Minnesota she literally is going extra miles to advance a cause that is critical to Minnesota’s future: preparing the next generation — particularly ethnic minority kids — to thrive amid ever more sophisticated science and technology.

“Improving STEM education is a huge challenge for Minnesota and the United States right now — frankly, across the globe,” Roehrig said. “We do not have enough scientists and engineers to solve all of the problems facing us on the planet.”

Studies on Minnesota’s reservations

Doing her part, Roehrig has made herself a fixture on Minnesota’s Indian reservations helping hundreds of students, teachers and tribal elders with projects that include studies of the Earth’s atmosphere via weather balloon, studies of stream flow through reservations and studies of the energy power in the wind.

She also helped draft the 2009 revisions to state science standards, and now she is helping teachers implement the standards.

Among other significant changes, the new standards incorporate engineering in the teaching of science. Take a lesson in heat transfer, for example. Students can learn from a textbook the various insulation properties of wood, wool, feathers, etc. To add the engineering piece, a teacher can provide piles of such materials and challenge the students to build insulated shelters for ice-cube “penguins.” The student whose sheltered penguin survives the longest wins the engineering competition.

Connected elements of real-world problems

That kind of integrated thinking about science and related subjects is at the core of Roehrig’s mission. The four corners of STEM education — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — are not separate towers, Roehrig insists, but connected elements of real problems in the real world.

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“If I had my druthers, I would completely change the way school was structured,” she said. “We do this thing where we put concepts in boxes and inside the walls of classrooms. So I go to one teacher for chemistry for one year. The next year I’m going to learn another science. And I’ll never connect that with anything we did in chemistry. And, God forbid that I connect what we are doing in algebra to what we are doing in physics because that’s a different class and a different teacher.”

STEM subjects simply don’t fit such compartments, she insists. They intertwine in the natural world and the realm of human invention.

“You take something like climate change,” she said. “You can’t understand it without understanding all the sciences and math and engineering and social studies and politics too.”

To really get a handle on this issue and other big problems, a student must learn to bring all of these ideas and disciplines together.

“That’s the only way we are going to survive on this planet, quite frankly, is if we can start to solve big problems,” she said. “And big problems aren’t on page 23 of the algebra book!”

Low scores, high stakes

Blame the structure of education or blame American cultural priorities. Whatever the cause, a deeper problem is that most students don’t seem to be taking to any of the STEM disciplines.

In statewide exams last year, just 48 percent of Minnesota students scored at a level that would be considered proficient in science. That was down from 49 percent a year earlier. The Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment II science test was taken last spring by fifth-graders, eighth-graders and high-school students.

Keep those test results in mind as you consider this fact: The fastest job growth in Minnesota and across the nation is in STEM-related industries. Over the past 10 years, growth in STEM jobs was three times as fast as in non-STEM jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. And STEM occupations are projected to grow by 17 percent in the decade ending 2018, compared to 9.8 percent for non-STEM occupations.

Indeed, while millions of workers in other occupations suffer job losses and falling incomes, shortages of skilled STEM workers are a worry to U.S. businesses, the Commerce Department said.

U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., is among many officials calling for dramatic gains in STEM education. Franken has co-sponsored legislation that would, among other features, invest in recruiting, training and supporting more STEM teachers.

Particularly alarming to educators and lawmakers alike is the gap between white students and students of color who make up Minnesota’s fastest growing population. At the 8th grade level in Minnesota, just 15 percent of black students, 20 percent of American Indians and 19 percent of Hispanics earned test scores deemed to show proficiency in science this year. That compares with 52 percent of white students.

Clearly, the state’s economic future depends on closing that gap.

Narrowing the divide at White Earth

No one following Roehrig to the White Earth Nation this year would know there was an ethnic divide in science studies.

Even with a relatively small population, the reservation turned out dozens of middle-school students along with their teachers to spend the month of June studying topics such as chemistry, aerodynamics and limnology.

STEM lessons at White Earth Reservation were tied to aspects of Native American culture.

What’s more, these students had kept coming back to devote sweet summer days to such studies for more than three years. They signed up for after-school science classes too.

The trick? No one said the topics were chemistry, aerodynamics and limnology. Roehrig and other organizers from on and off the reservation tied each subject to Native American culture and daily life at White Earth. They exploited the science lessons behind tapping a tree for maple syrup, harvesting wild rice and other familiar activities.

White Earth leaders had taken an interest in alternative energy. So there were solar and wind energy projects.

Weather-balloon experiments

And, of course, weather is universally interesting in Minnesota. To study the earth’s atmosphere, the White Earth students launched helium weather balloons loaded with sensors, cameras and GPS units.

In keeping with Native American values, tribal elders were a regular part of the teaching team, adding elements of Ojibwe history and customs to the science studies. Their participation helps students identify with the science subjects at hand, said Joe LaGarde, a White Earth member who has worked for years to preserve tribal culture.

“With biology, for instance, and working around the lakes, a lot of times people will tell stories about the different trees, our stories,” LaGarde said. “With the medicine plants, like the red willow, there are always stories. Even with cattails, there are old stories that go way back. … We need to keep telling those stories.”

The stories draw students into the lessons to the point that “a lot of times they don’t even realize they are learning the math and science,” he said.

Leading by listening

The roots of the program go back about 12 years when LaGarde, other tribal members and a team from University of Minnesota Extension collaborated on summer science programs for White Earth kids.

Professor Stephan Carlson, an extension educator, recruited Roehrig for the project in 2007. Initially, she secured $900,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation — “enough to be really dangerous,” she said.

But her involvement went far beyond the funding. Roehrig spent weeks at a time on the Northern Minnesota reservation, getting acquainted with the traditions, customs and people.

“A big piece of this was just spending a lot of time in the community and in the schools,” she said. “You can pick up a book and read about the history and the culture. … But you have to be patient until people are willing to talk to you and accept you.”

Doug McArthur, the tribal wildlife manager, had helped with the summer programs for years. He was one of many who wondered whether this newcomer would be sensitive to the ways of White Earth.

Doug McArthur is the tribal wildlife manager at White Earth. (Image courtesy of Doug McArthur)

‘She really caught on’

“One of the things we noticed right away is that she could assess the needs and differences of a program here as compared with a program in another part of the state,” McArthur said. “She asked the right questions . . . and she really caught on. It didn’t take her long to get her feet underneath her and get us to the places where we needed to go.”

The tactic of leading by listening proved effective, said Carlson, the Extension educator.

“She has shown a good deal of respect for the people and culture and allowed this to be front and foremost in our science and math activities,” he said.

The upshot, he said is that she earned respect in return.

“When Gill speaks, people listen,” he said.

Letting kids drive

Most important to Roehrig was listening to the students — and that’s true in general for STEM education, not on White Earth alone, she said.

“You need to find the things kids care about, and use that to help them learn,” she said. “You have to be nimble in many ways, going with something the kids are doing and thinking about. … There are a lot of ways to insert the concepts that you want kids to learn and the state wants kids to learn. But it’s going to work when the kid really wants to know it, not when I decide, ‘You are going to learn it because it’s in Chapter 3, and right now we’re studying Chapter 3.’ “

But, what if the kids, being kids, just want to play?

“Fun can overtake the learning if you are not careful,” she acknowledged. “Kids don’t forget to learn, but adults can forget to help them learn. … You’ve got to make sure they know why they are doing what they are doing.”

Leading by doing

Roehrig, with a heavy load of research and academic responsibilities, could have justified stopping at raising funds for the White Earth program and dispatching a few graduate students to help with the work.

The fact that she pitched in herself impressed Deborah Zak, one of the program’s founders.

Deborah Zak
Deborah Zak

“I’m just amazed by her commitment,” said Zak, who is the U of M Extension service’s Campus Regional Director, Northwest.

“She has opportunities to work with people across the country, people in very influential positions, and … she comes up here and spends weeks on end with the program, getting right in there with the students,” Zak said.

No one individual can take credit for the success at White Earth, Zak emphasized.

“But Gill certainly has added so much … she is so committed to getting young people interested in math and science,” she said. “She also has done a lot of work with the teachers at White Earth so that curriculum we have developed has been implemented.”

McArthur added: “She had a lot of new and fresh ideas for us … not just in our summer program, but throughout the year in our curriculum and planning.”

Students learned — and liked science

Follow up research shows that White Earth kids learned from the programs and also liked science as a result of their participation.

LaGarde said he knows students who would have dropped out of school if not for the summer science program.

As for Roehrig, she said, “At the end of the day the biggest indicator for me was the kids who kept coming back. We had students who came every year for four years. So they saw value in coming back. … They cared. They wanted to share what they had learned with their families and other people in the community. It was just incredibly powerful to watch that.”

Now, Roehrig has expanded her commitment to STEM education for Native American students, working with a Head Start program and a science fair at White Earth and also with teachers at Minnesota’s other reservations.  

At Red Lake, for example, that involves a study of the all-important walleye, focusing on fish populations and issues such as stocking decisions. On other reservations, it involves probing sediments from lake bottoms to explore the impact of human settlement on wild rice beds. Across Northern Minnesota, it involves questions of where the deer will go if climate change pushes forest lines northward.

It is not surprising that Roehrig prefers science lessons in nature to those traditionally taught from textbooks.

“I hate textbooks!” she said.

She acknowledged, though, that a science teacher can’t be utterly spontaneous.

“I have an agenda as a teacher, and I’ve got certain things I do need to teach whether or not I look at the laundry list of what the state wants me to teach or I say these are the really big important ideas about chemistry that I want kids to learn,” she said. “It’s always that balance.”

Still, Roehrig is determined to rescue science from isolated academic towers.

Breaking molds and traditions is nothing new for her.

As a kid growing up in the small town of Kettering, England, Roehrig, now 43, loved mathematics and science even though girls were rare in those classes, let alone in science careers.

One of very few girls in science

“I was one of very few girls in high school in science,” she said. “I took physics at age 16. There were probably 50 students, and I was one of two girls. In chemistry I was the only girl. I took math with the other girl who took physics with me, and we were the only girls. … We were the weird ones.”

Still, she never heard a discouraging word from teachers or her parents.

“I’ve heard lots of stories (about girls discouraged from science studies) but no, I never had that happen,” she said. “I’m also pretty stubborn, so maybe I just didn’t listen.”

Roehrig’s father worked as an accountant; her mother, an emergency room nurse. But she was the first in her family to earn a full college degree. At the University of Southampton, she finished a double major in math and chemistry and then moved to Tucson to pursue a graduate degree at the University of Arizona.

Chemistry studies were rewarding, but initial work as a chemist was not.

“I spent most of my time sitting behind a computer,” she said. “The only time I talked to other people was to go and borrow a password to get extra time on the supercomputer to crunch my data. I’m kind of a social person and that’s not really what I wanted to do. … I had boxed myself somewhere I didn’t want to be.”

Meanwhile, her chance to teach as a graduate student was surprisingly rewarding.

“I loved it,” she said. “Teaching allows you to be incredibly creative. Sadly, not all teachers are creative, but it affords you the opportunity. … So I walked away from my Ph.D, and got my teaching license.”

Making science classes relevant

Her first job was teaching high-school chemistry in an Arizona district where all students were required to study that subject in 10th grade. It could have been a science teacher’s nightmare; the class would include a good share of students who were forced into a difficult subject.

That challenge would shape Roehrig’s views about effective STEM education.

“If chemistry had been an elective, you could say, ‘OK, everyone chose to take it and will be perfectly fine with it.’ ” she said. “But if everyone has to take it, you can’t teach it like that. It would be too boring and too difficult mathematically. …  This is where you have to be creative.”

Working with curriculum from the American Chemical Society, she and another teacher began combing the community for chemistry lessons that played into everyday life. One set of lessons came from copper mining, something so common in that part of Arizona that many of the students had grown up in mining families.

“You have these beautiful rocks that are streaked with blue, the classic copper color,” she said. “Well how do you get it out of that rock so that you’ve got copper metal? It’s all chemistry.”

Soon her students were touring mines and returning to the classroom with buckets of ore tailings to be transformed into copper metal — with chemistry lessons involved all along the process.

Water was another big issue across Arizona. So her students were on the banks of the Santa Cruz River collecting water samples they would use to explore questions about sewage treatment, water purification and the quality needed to support fish.

“They would learn the chemistry because we gave them a reason to learn chemistry that was relevant to them and to their community,” she said. “That’s a big piece of what STEM is all about. It is finding a context and a reason to learn.”

After four years of teaching, Roehrig was back at the University of Arizona, finishing a Ph.D. in science education. Then she took a teaching job in San Diego.

Meanwhile, she had married and the couple had two children. Her husband, tied to work in Arizona, commuted to California on weekends. Not a happy situation.

To their relief, both of them landed jobs in the Twin Cities in 2004.

Still knocking down silos

After sitting on a committee of experts who helped develop Minnesota’s new science standards, Roehrig now is helping teachers introduce them in classrooms this year.

She’s excited about the addition of engineering to the standards. The expectation is that engineering will be integrated into science classes rather than taught as a separate discipline.

“We don’t need to have another silo, another box — to have a math class here, science class there and engineering class over there,” she said.

Even with the new standards, many aspects of science education are too compartmentalized for her liking. For example, life science is taught in one grade and earth science in another.

Those subjects fit together, Roehrig insists.

That view is in keeping with an initiative called Next Generation Science Standards. Minnesota is one of 26 states working with the National Research Council and other organizations to identify the STEM education needs into the future, and Roehrig sits on a statewide committee exploring the implications for Minnesota.

A focus for the initiative is to help students think in terms of “core ideas” that reach across multiple sciences and engineering. Energy might be a core idea, for example, drawing information from physics, chemistry, biology and other disciplines.

In other words, students would not stop at learning how to solve quadratic equations or to rattle off a list of the chemical elements.

The ultimate goal would be the approach Roehrig has championed: Empower students to be critical thinkers in a complex world that increasingly is STEM driven.