The University of Central Arkansas STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) Institute held an open house event Wednesday on campus for administrators, department chairs, faculty, students, state officials and more to get connected.
Director Uma Garimella told the Log Cabin Democrat that the institute has been around for more than 13 years and has made a huge impact during that time.
She said their main focus is serving as the bridge between kindergarten through 12th grade teachers and the resources they offer through the institute.
While the nonprofit does not deal with students directly — they do not have any type of specific courses or faculty on staff — they do work with many individual departments as a “long-time unit” of the UCA College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.
Garimella said that’s where the idea for the open house came from.
“We wanted this to be a place where everybody could come and see how many people we are working with and know each other [and] also show how many connections we have and let them know the impact we are having,” she said.
It’s been more than a decade since the institute was established.
Garimella said they support thousands of teachers each year — that being a low estimate — whether through hosting professional developments, one-on-one conversations or connecting them to what they need, offering the many items the STEM Institute has from books and tinker toys to its 3D printer.
“Our math resources room is truly a resource,” Jacob Sisson, math specialist with the institute, said. “[Many] can get free access to manipulatives, technology, robotic pieces … consumable items to carry out STEM lessons and STEM learning.”
Sisson walked the LCD through the benefits of the room.
“That’s really the purpose of our room and the beauty of it is we are willing to train teachers, parents, whomever, in how to use these supplies to keep a STEM focus,” he said. “That’s our goal is to bridge the university to the public school arena, the private school arena, [with] stem in mind.”
Sisson said STEM isn’t just a way of learning but a process in learning and seeing those “connections among different disciplines.”
“It’s a connection among how things operate, how things move, how we problem solve the world, so, having that knowledge, we have to make sure kids have access to the latest and greatest so they can continue to grow with whatever skill and interest they’re in and bring about that problem solving, that fluency in mathematics, that scientific process of investigation” he said. “All of those have to come together to help them make sense of why things work in the world and, more importantly, hopefully, it’s going to shape a career for them that’s life-long and gives back to the community as well.”
While teachers and schools tend to be their main focus, Sisson said the institute also wants to connect with the public — homeschool families, businesses, private schools and more; he encouraged them to go to the website and see what they have to offer and then call and get in touch with a specialist.
“We want to invite the community in and we want to make sure our resources for a parent who’s wanting just to get that extra practice in mathematics or just wants their child engaged in something different to call us and we’ll make that available to them,” he said.
In addition, they’re also considering what an after-school program might look like to give parents an opportunity to engage their kids in STEM areas like robotics, engineering, STEM curriculum, online applications and more “just to secure that interest for the future.”
The LCD asked Sisson if the need is there … whether the STEM field is on the rise.
“I would say yes, there is a need across, not just our community, but across our state, in terms of getting kids down to problem solving and being able to take something down to its most tiniest part and building it back up, which is where the computer science and coding piece comes into play,” he said.
Sisson said they also get a “wealth” of businesses that offer grants to bring teachers and students in to support the field.
“They also give us a vision of what they’re looking for and we try in our trainings to bring that out,” he said. “That’s one of our big pieces is listening to the business world to see what is the need to shape that trainer, to keep those businesses here. We’re surrounded n Arkansas by so many venues and businesses that use STEM in a different way so we always have to listen to where they’re going to know how to improve our practice.”
Sisson said the “need is great,” and it’s exciting to be a part of something he’s so passionate about, so invested in.
“I think that passion, I think, feeds into our kids,” he said.
As far as the day-to-day operations, Sisson said it’s ever changing.
“We have three goals that we try to reach: professional development, school support, improve service teachers,” he said.
With professional development, they look at public schools in their reach to make sure they have the latest and greatest in training with STEM, partnering with the co-op, doing training in schools, bringing teachers to UCA and meeting whatever the need is there.
“When we say classroom support, we’re talking about math and science and computer science so we will go to the schools, work with the teachers, help have conversations about what we need to do with instruction to get kids ready,” Sisson said. “We’re everywhere.”
Through all that hands-on type of support, Garimella said teachers are able to go back and expand the STEM programs at their own schools, equipping the next generation of learners.
She said that was the point behind the open house and the several presenters she had come and talk, including Steve Addison, the dean of the college they work with, Anthony Owens, chief state STEM officer and state director of computer science education, Mayflower School District science teacher, Tonya Hogue, and STEMTeach student Emily Herron.
“It [was] all showing what we are doing so we know each other and understand what type of relationship we had … how we work together,” she said. “The big thing was what type of impact we have, what type of connections we have.”
Sisson said the main aspect about the UCA STEM Institute they want to get across to the community was their existence and what they have to offer.
“We want them to know were here for them … that we are a free resource and our resources are available to all,” he said, including the family who just wants to look for a fun STEM activity to do on a Friday night.