Science education grants aim to help rural schools

By Erin Lindsay

Rural high schools around the state of Illinois will be receiving help from the University thanks to a recently issued $5 million grant from the National Science Federation.

The grant was established to support a statewide program with the goal of improving chemical sciences and computational literacy in small rural schools around the state.

One of three co-principal investigators for the grant, Diana Dummitt, said the need is there for improving science departments around the state.

“Because of the isolation associated with a small town, many students don’t want to return after graduation,” she said. “We want the students and teachers to learn all of the benefits and careers associated with science so that they can return to their towns as doctors or teachers.”

One hundred and twenty high school science teachers will be selected as participants as they learn to become teacher leaders in what Dummitt describes as towns with limited resources.

The program hopes to achieve all four of its goals over the next five years: strengthen rural high school teachers’ and students’ understanding of chemistry within the context of 21st century research; increase teachers’ use of, and comfort with, computational and visualization tools in their teaching; establish a group of high school- and university-level faculty teacher-leaders who will be advocates for excellence in science education; and promote institutional change in university and school district partners, according to a University news release.

Three campus units will head the project including the department of chemistry, the College of Medicine and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. After candidates are selected, the first full-time training session is scheduled for June 17-29 of 2007. Paul Kelter, another co-principal investigator and chemistry professor, said a very productive summer program awaits the recipients.

“We want to give them the Lexus/Prius hybrid treatment. They’re worth it,” Kelter said. “We do this because the teachers and ultimately the students are worth it. At the minimum we’re going to impact over 20,000 students.”

Another core factor of the program will be the newly installed access grid, a virtual communication center that will connect the University to fellow teachers and students in the program. Co-Principal Investigator Edee Norman-Wiziecki will help run the center as well as set up four regional offices of education throughout the state.

“I’ve worked with rural schools before and they do a marvelous job of educating their students with fewer resources,” she said. “We want to allow students choices. When we impact a teacher, we impact a student.”

In addition to impacting other parts of Illinois, the program will effectively make use of the University’s faculty in many areas of expertise.

Kelter is looking forward to improving an already prestigious faculty and staff.

“How neat it will be to have the top faculty have the top educational expertise to exert leadership on this campus,” Kelter said.

After writing a proposal and receiving the good news, both Dummitt and Kelter said the collaboration was what allowed the grant to come alive at this University.

“This program benefits all. It will be great to just have a sense of beauty of chemistry and its importance, no matter what kids decide to do after high school and college,” said Kelter.

Applications will be available online for schools that wish to apply this October.

After a four-month selection process, Kelter said the “cohort will be in place” and preparations for the June workshop will be underway.