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Alabama STEM education initiative gets worldwide attention

MONTGOMERY, Alabama — Six-year-old Blake examines three small wheat seeds under a magnifying glass and then documents what he has observed. He pinches together a piece of paper towel until it fits into a straw. The student deposits his seeds in the straw and the teacher places the straws in cups.

The class discusses whether the seed could grow without soil. It is determined that plants need air, water, and sun to grow. The teacher places the straws in water in the windows and the class will observe them during the next few weeks and record their findings.

The experiment is part of the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative (AMSTI) to improve math and science teaching statewide. Teachers are finding that students who participate in the Alabama STEM education initiative have a greater love for learning and learn and retain more of the materials. The positive results have been documented.

Deanna McKinley, a sixth grade teacher at Daniel Pratt Elementary School, said the program is the core of her teaching. “It is so much fun for the students — math is not boring. It is hands-on and easy to teach. The more they interact, the more they remember the material. I love it.”

There are also few behavior problems in an AMSTI classroom. Students are too busy working on their projects and teachers say they don’t get bored and act out. It is an atmosphere of pure learning.

In fact, a report from the United States Department of Education showed that students gained an average of 28 extra days of schooling in math when they participated in the program.  AMSTI Director Steve Ricks said, “We are extremely pleased to have the solid evidence from this major study confirm previous external evaluations that AMSTI is making a dramatic difference in the lives of students. The results are a testament to what Alabama teachers can achieve when provided with the proper professional development, resources, and support.”

Exploratory results indicated that students who attended AMSTI schools and classes for at least two years showed a gain of four percentile points when compared with students who did not attend classes in the Alabama STEM education initiative. These gains compare to an average of 50 extra days of schooling in math.

In addition, despite the fact that AMSTI does not explicitly teach reading skills, after one year, students in AMSTI schools showed a gain of two percentile points on the SAT-10 reading assessment when compared with students who did not attend AMSTI schools. These gains compare to an average of 40 extra days of schooling.

AMSTI has also become an international model for math, science and technology classroom instruction and learning and is being studied by 21 European countries in addition to Russia, China and Mexico, as well as other states.

Ricks said the concept of the Alabama STEM education initiative is simple: Students learn math and science by doing math and science. “We provide all of the materials and equipment they need,” he said. Teachers are provided with professional development, teaching materials, access to technology and other supports to help them adopt these new programs.

State School Superintendent Tommy Bice said the goal is not to just graduate students, but to ensure that they are prepared for the workforce or college. Programs that develop students’ analytical skills put the state on the right track.

“This is an affirmation of what we’ve felt and known for almost a decade,” Bice said. “Alabama’s future is bright as these young minds are challenged to think critically and solve complex problems with no obvious answer-the 21st-century skills business and industry are asking of our graduates.”

Alabama Secretary of Commerce Greg Canfield, who also chairs Accelerate Alabama and is responsible for implementing the state’s economic development plan, said: “Of all we are doing, bringing education to the table and the continued implementation of programs such as these are most important. What we do in education today will have a major impact for the next 20 to 25 years.”

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