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Kaitlyn Flynn working in one of the labs on Western's campus on Feb. 9. // Photo by Alix Condit

By Calvin Lowe

NASA has doubled its grant to Western this year, bringing the total to $190,000. The grant will fund research projects and help train future science and math teachers over the summer. 

“There is a general shortage of expertise [in STEM], not just in teachers but in all the major industries,” said Robert Winglee, director of UW NASA Space Grant.

The United States has maintained a shortage in teachers within the past several years. In 2012, America had a teacher shortage of about 20,000, according to the Economic Policy Institute. By 2018, the United States had a shortage of about 110,000 teachers, according to the Learning Policy Institute

“STEM is an important field for the economic growth of the U.S. and we seek a diverse workforce and that requires diversity, not just in ethnicity,” Winglee said. “Different ways of thinking can lead to better solutions. It’s good to include diversity in the program.” 

It’s hard to convince people who aren’t passionate about the idea of becoming a teacher to choose that career. Some see teaching as a hard and low-paying job and see other careers as being more impactful or interesting, Dr. Emily Borda, director of SMATE, said. 

“It combines a major in science with an education program that makes it hard to graduate in anything less than five years,” Borda said. “The accessibility is an issue as well when it comes to paying for your education.” 

Dr. Melissa Rice, assistant professor of planetary science at Western and principal investigator, and Borda put together a new proposal for Western to receive twice as much money from the NASA Space Grant program as they had historically. They proposed to double the size of the scholarship for summer research so students who were interested in becoming future science teachers, and students who are interested in any area of science relevant to NASA could be eligible. 

“We just heard that NASA has given the Washington Space Grant the requested funding and that Western will be getting our increased funding for the first time this year,” Rice said. “Students can submit their applications to us by March 6.”

Traditionally, the Washington Space Grant has given Western funding for the teacher education program for students interested in becoming science teachers, Rice said.  

“We’ve had these before and they’ve been directed at pre-service teachers, but now we’ve added this component where we’re opening it up to STEM majors as well,” Borda said. 

Three STEM majors or STEM interested students will receive grants, along with three students interested in future teaching, Borda said. 

Kaitlyn Flynn spins coating nano-particles into a substrate at one of Western's labs. // Photo by Alix Condit

NASA has a program in all 50 states called the Space Grant Program. Through NASA’s education division, they distribute money to every state for education and outreach. UW is one of the universities that receives the money through a program called the Washington NASA Space Grant Consortium, Rice said. 

The university sends grant money from NASA to institutions within Washington to fund research projects related to space and aeronautics, aerospace sciences and teacher education, Borda said. 

UW has sent grants to Western since 2003. Each grant is a five-year funding cycle which is renewed every year after Western sends its budget to UW, said Lori Torres, program support supervisor 2.  

“It offers stability for students and faculty involved, knowing that this support is continuing to give student and faculty experiences with research and workforce development,” Winglee said. 

The program will hopefully allow students who are interested in becoming teachers to have some deeper experience with the research into science education so they can make a more informed choice about what they want to do with their own career path, Rice said.  

This will be an opportunity to get experience with research regarding how students learn so they can have a deeper understanding of the education field, Rice said.

Rice said she hopes that this program will be another way for students at Western to learn about the opportunities that are available on campus and the resources and support if they are thinking about going into teaching.

Current projects for 2019-20 research include: Using 3DLAP to assess the extent to which next generation physical science and everyday thinking express three-dimensional learning, synthesis of multifunctional Microgel beads for optical imaging, identifying struggles in programming assignments on a real-time basis and understanding chemistry student knowledge organization with a card sort task, according to Torres. 

“We are hoping that [this] cultivates a teaching workforce that can then bring up to the next generation,” Borda said. 

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