NSF awards RiSE Center $1.35M for STEM education project in coastal schools

A Maine Center for Research in STEM Education initiative to explore how engaging students in coastal research projects can help them build data literacy and career competency while also informing local policy and planning has received a $1.35 million award from the National Science Foundation.

The University of Maine-based RiSE Center supports middle and high school students in real-world science research projects, including coastal monitoring and tracking the changes in local ocean water properties, as well as engaging in the design and construction of the sensor units used to collect this data. The students will be able to see the impacts of their work, as data they gather will be used to shape community policy decisions and planning. The four-year project is expected to impact at least 2,500 students from economically challenged rural Maine communities, many of whom would be the first of their family to attend college. 

“The ocean is central to life on our planet, and many of the challenges society faces involve the ocean, whether they are related to changing climate, fisheries, ocean health, or coastal development,” says Sara Lindsay, co-principal investigator of the project, associate professor of marine sciences and assistant director of the RiSE Center. “This project is exciting because it gives teachers and students the chance to focus their learning through the lens of their ‘backyard ocean’ and build skills in observing, engineering, working with data and communicating as they investigate how the ocean is changing and what that means for their communities.”

Initially, the RiSE Center will be working with the Belfast Area High School and other schools in RSU 71 schools. In the last half of the project, other coastal districts and their communities will become part of the project.

Twenty teachers from multiple school districts will also be trained through the program as peer guides to teach their colleagues and future students to use this model to build stronger connections between communities and their schools. 

The program will also introduce students to local career opportunities where STEM research skills and knowledge are required. A group of business and nonprofit partners will be involved in mentoring, job shadowing and providing internships to students in the program. Partners will develop lessons that focus on marine sciences and the data that students collect to use in various courses, from science and mathematics to social studies and statistics, in collaborative summer institutes and school-year work sessions. 

Through the programs, UMaine researchers will generate a model for teachers to guide this approach to student research. They will look at surveys collected from participating students to see how elements of the project — like community relevance, marine sciences emphasis and real-world research involvement — impact the students’ learning, engagement and attitude towards STEM and STEM careers. The surveys will be separated by gender and, where possible, racial and ethnic groups to better understand how to make STEM education more inclusive for diverse and underrepresented groups.

“This project gives students and their schools a chance to contribute to their communities, while at the same time providing authentic collaborative science research experiences for them. It also provides the opportunity for interested community members to enrich the educational experiences and career knowledge of local students,” says Susan McKay, principal investigator on the project, director of the RiSE Center and professor of physics.  

Contact: Sam Schipani, samantha.schipani@maine.edu