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NewsJun 4, 2019

Lesley professors and local teachers team up to enhance innovative math and science education

Partnerships are fueling broader, deeper access to science and math for Cambridge and Somerville schoolchildren

Teacher Lindsay Tosches looks on as a student pours liquid into a beaker.
Pictured: Somerville STEAM/Innovation Learning Specialist Lindsay Tosches guides an East Somerville Community School student through an experiment.

As an environmental educator, Jess Bloomer knows the importance of getting children outside and interacting with nature.

And thanks to a new partnership with the team from the Lesley STEAM Learning Lab and Lesley professors, her instruction has blossomed.

“We had been working with young people in the garden, but we had never delved deep into the technology and engineering side of things,” said Bloomer, deputy director of Groundwork Somerville, who collaborated with Lesley to develop a program centered on pollinators. “The Lesley University team has really been able to bring that dimension. It’s been amazing.”

Jess Bloomer stands next to a table while speaking
Jess Bloomer discusses the pollinator project she worked on with Lesley faculty and staff.

View more photos from the showcase.

Bloomer’s organization and the children it serves benefit from a major grant-funded project launched in 2018 called the STAR Initiative, through which Lesley University and other grantees are working to enhance science and math education in Cambridge and Somerville.

Through the initiative, Lesley professors Susan Rauchwerk and Nicole Weber worked with two teachers and their students from Cambridge High School Extension Program, a non-traditional public school. They developed a sheep-brain dissection project, partnering with a local neuroscientist to explore how different disorders affect the brain. The high school students came to Lesley to conduct the dissection in a campus science laboratory.

“We thought that the kids would be interested in how different disorders affect your body, like depression. It was a great way to engage them in thinking,” said Dr. Rauchwerk, who presented on the project during a recent showcase. “It really sustained their attention and they were all in.”

“This is about providing opportunities that students deserve.”
Kenneth Salim, Cambridge Public Schools superintendent

Through the grant, Lesley is also working with a team of more than 20 teachers from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School to integrate climate justice across the curriculum, among other enriching science- and math-based projects.

“The STAR Initiative has afforded us unprecedented access to work directly with public school educators and out-of-school time providers,” said Assistant Professor Sue Cusack, director of Lesley’s STEAM Learning Lab. “While we have had a long history of working with these educators through a variety of initiatives, this work provides us with a focused, long-term opportunity to nurture the development of a robust STEM professional learning community.”

A group of officials pose for a photo at the Biogen showcase.
Alazar Ayele, Sue Cusack, Kate Dawson, Johanna Jobin, Mary Skipper and Kenneth Salim.

The Biogen Foundation launched the STAR Initiative, which stands for Science, Teacher support, Access and Readiness, to foster local STEM (science, technology, math and engineering) ecosystems. Lesley is among the recipients of the $10 million four-year grant – and the only university chosen to participate.

“This is about providing opportunities for students and opportunities that students deserve,” Cambridge Public Schools Superintendent Kenneth Salim said during a STAR Initiative showcase and year-end celebration, hosted by Lesley University in University Hall on May 23. “The school district has been working with Dr. Hilary Kreisberg (director of Lesley’s Center for Mathematics Achievement) to help educators plan lessons across grade levels.”

“It’s not only about getting into college – it’s about graduating with a degree hopefully in a STEM field and making a difference in the world,” added Somerville Public Schools Superintendent Mary Skipper, who thanked Lesley and the other grantees during the showcase. “You work so hard with our young people to make sure they have what they need.”

Lesley faculty, staff serve as education partners for Cambridge and Somerville

Among the goals of the initiative, Lesley and the other grantees are increasing access and opportunities for students who are underrepresented in STEM college and career pathways. With an eye toward access, East Somerville Community School teacher Rae Woodcock has worked closely with the Lesley team to build hands-on, culturally relevant connections in all of the science units she taught this year.

“With the development of this professional learning community, we are helping to support a more coherent, equitable, and student-centered STEM learning environment for the youth in Cambridge and Somerville,” said Cusack.

While employment in STEM fields is growing, students from under-resourced communities are disproportionately underexposed to and unprepared for these careers.

“Access is by far the most important thing the (Biogen) Foundation stands for, and every single person in this room is giving the opportunity to provide access,” said Alazar Ayele, manager of the Biogen Community Lab who oversees the STAR grant. “As an immigrant child, I didn’t know what FAFSA was (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). I didn’t understand things. … Somebody planted a seed in me to really be an educator and I’m so inspired by it every day. The reason I work so hard is to make sure every kid has access.”

“The Lesley team was accommodating and incredibly creative. It’s been the best experience.”
Jess Bloomer, Groundwork Somerville

In addition to generating STEM access and hands-on learning experiences for local educators and students, Lesley faculty have been able to incorporate the projects into their classrooms as well.

“What we’re helping with is actually coming back and enriching our classes,” said Dr. Weber, an associate professor of science and science education. “The teachers are our thought partners in education.”

Nicole Weber speaks to someone in a science lab
Rohan Kundargi speaks with professor Nicole Weber, who ran demonstrations during the showcase in a University Hall science lab.

During the showcase, Weber shared videos of a project with Somerville sixth graders and their teacher, Somerville STEAM/Innovation Learning Specialist Lindsay Tosches, in which they created models representing moon, sun and earth movement. Weber helped teams trouble-shoot their model design, and when she and Rauchwerk returned to hear the students’ presentations, they were so moved by the discussion that they replicated the project at Lesley and with graduate students in elementary education.

“We find that our own practice is changing as a result of this partnership,” said Dr. Rauchwerk, a professor in our Graduate School of Education.

“It’s incredibly gratifying for us to see the impact,” said Kate Dawson, senior vice president of Biogen’s Therapeutic Development Group. “We know there are incredibly talented kids that just need a little bit of help to really achieve their dreams and be the next generation of scientists and teachers and engineers and architects and painters.”

In addition to Lesley, the STAR grantees are Breakthrough Greater Boston, Citizen Schools, Enroot, uAspire and Young People’s Project.

“The Lesley team was accommodating and incredibly creative,” reflected Bloomer. “It’s been the best experience.”