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Grad Students Conducting Research for STEM Council

University of Maine research fellows have been assisting the Maine Governor’s STEM Council create a comprehensive strategy to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics initiatives through an effort funded by UMaine’s Office of the Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost.

Laura Millay, a student in the master of science in teaching program through the Maine Center for Research in STEM Education, or RiSE Center, and Johanna Barrett, a research fellow at the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center and student in the master of arts program in economics and international environmental policy, are providing information and resources to the council on how to create a strategic plan and data dashboard.

Daniel Laverty, a science teacher at Mattanawcook Junior High School in Lincoln who is also a master of science in teaching student through the RiSE Center, assisted in the initial gathering and presentation of data.

The STEM Council was signed into law and formed in 2011 when members were appointed by Gov. Paul LePage, according to Millay.

The council is composed of volunteer representatives from organizations, departments and businesses across the state, all with differing STEM perceptions. Without a clear mandate or any funding, members have created subcommittees to determine their role and find direction, Millay says.

One of the subcommittees is tasked with looking at successful STEM councils and programs in other states. UMaine’s Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Susan Hunter, a subcommittee member, decided to recruit UMaine research fellows and provide funding for their efforts, according to Millay.

In the summer of 2012, Millay, Barrett and Laverty researched STEM initiatives and strategies used to promote them in states that are comparable to Maine.

“There are lots of STEM initiatives going on all over the place, but the idea of a council is to pull all of those together and coordinate efforts and clarify a strategy for STEM,” Millay says.

Millay believes STEM education is necessary in advancing energy, developing technology and supporting economic growth while protecting the environment.

“You can see the importance of STEM all around us,” Millay says. She believes many societal problems could benefit from STEM innovations by  allowing for development without pollution and waste. Millay also says STEM education is necessary for economic growth in Maine by expanding industries and providing well-paid jobs for qualified workers.

“Because STEM education is about learning by doing and exposure at an early age to people already engaged in those fields, it can foster the necessary creativity, curiosity, drive and discipline required to be successful,” Barrett says.

As a prospective high school science teacher, Millay’s interest in the project is based in education.

“I’m inspired because I always had an interest in science and had what felt like a really unfulfilling experience with science in college, and it seemed like what I learned in grade school and high school was a poor match with what I expected to do in college,” Millay says.

Barrett, who says she is “not an academic at heart,” is more interested in identifying the cultural norms related to education initiatives and likes the intersection between culture and economics.

“From an economic standpoint, STEM education is the path by which future workforce needs are met,” Barrett says. “Students who have a solid background in science, technology, engineering and math are better equipped to meet the needs of the technology-intensive labor industry.”

Millay, Barrett and Laverty presented last summer’s findings to the STEM Council during a daylong workshop. Currently, the state does not have a comprehensive strategy for STEM initiatives. Millay and Barrett hope the information they provide can help the council create a road map for where they are headed.

The researchers also helped the council write a request for funding that went to the governor and legislature. That request is still being processed.

Millay and Barrett are working on a mock-up of a data dashboard they plan to present to the council this summer. Creating a dashboard connects to the concept of data-driven decision making, or using data to inform policy, Millay says.

A data dashboard would be an interactive website available to policymakers, researchers and the general public that would organize STEM education information in one place. Data on the website could be categorized to answer questions based on topics such as location or school, and linked to objectives to offer success indicators or benchmarks on reaching goals.

Making this information readily available would also help educate the public on the data’s importance, Millay says.

“Data becomes powerful and reliable when it is consistent and thorough,” Barrett says. “This goes back to the cultural component — consistent, reliable data requires that people are willing to participate and give information.”

Data collection is also needed to monitor the council’s progress. The longitudinal data can display trends and identify successful efforts in STEM education.

The Maine Department of Education currently has an online Data Warehouse where some STEM statistics are available, but doesn’t offer a lot of useful data for crafting STEM policy or illustrating which initiatives work over time, according to Millay.

The website includes facts on student achievement in math and science as well as where students go after high school and what careers they choose. Information missing from the database includes public perceptions, success indicators and instruction quality, the researchers say.

Millay and Barrett are researching data on students, workforce, achievement, interest and teaching practices. They intend to learn what information is and isn’t available and what would be useful in crafting policy. By looking at other states, they also plan to determine the best way to use, present and make publicly available the findings.

An example of new information that could be compiled would be the percentage of high school teachers in STEM subjects who have a degree in their field.

“Having that kind of data collected could really help show if there is an issue that needs to be addressed,” Millay says. “And we’d be able to tell if some of the things we are trying are working or not. Without the data it’s kind of impossible to say.”

Barrett says she is proud of the research the team has completed so far.

“I like research that produces tangible outcomes rather than a paper on a shelf,” Barrett says. “I feel we succeeded in giving the Maine STEM Council a solid understanding of where Maine stands in the national STEM landscape, and we are providing policymakers and business leaders with real and feasible recommendations about what kinds of initiatives are working here and what factors ought to be considered when implementing and measuring success.”

Contact: Elyse Kahl, 207.581.3747


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