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January 12, 2022

An Alfond grant will expand STEM education in Maine

6 people at coffee table Courtesy / Maine Math and Science Alliance The Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance, based in Augusta, is growing its programs to support STEM education across Maine. Here, educators take part in a program called “Integrate-2-Innovate,” designed to help them integrate computer science and computational thinking into their classrooms.

The Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance recently received a $1 million grant from the Harold Alfond Foundation to expand computer science education in the state.

The alliance is an Augusta nonprofit dedicated to increasing science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education, by offering targeted professional learning opportunities. Each year, the alliance works with about 1,000 educators and has an impact on approximately 39,000 students. It offers over a dozen programs that include broadening demographic participation in STEM careers, using place- and community-based experiences to foster STEM education, investigating new ways to integrate computer science and computational thinking into rural classrooms, and training after-school educators to hone their STEM skills.

The three-year Alfond grant will allow it to partner with rural educators to create lessons to inspire Maine’s rural elementary and middle school students to have the computational thinking skills considered key to success in the STEM workforce and many other innovative sectors. The goal is to train 100 rural educators and give 10,000 rural students access to foundational computer science educational experiences. The project aims to lay the groundwork for scalable computer science education reform in Maine’s classrooms. 

We asked the alliance’s executive director, Ruth Kermish-Allen, about the organization’s overall mission and the specific work related to the grant. Here’s an edited transcript.

Mainebiz: Tell us about the origin of the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance.

Ruth Kermish-Allen: We started in 1992. At the time, the Maine Department of Education had an interest in focusing more on science and math across the state, so they applied for a statewide systemic initiative grant that essentially began the process of creating beacon schools, where teacher-leaders would be given additional training, networking and professional development and would use those activities to help them spur more research-based science and math teaching in their classes and begin to initiate school reform. 

person smiling
Courtesy / Maine Math and Science Alliance
Ruth Kermish-Allen.

MB: How have things unfolded since then?

RKA: Within the past 10 years, we’ve been working to grow capacity to a national scale. We’re still focusing on Maine, but we’re finding that linking with other rural educators across the country has been helpful to get a different perspective, to see what’s working, and to understand the context in other states. For example, in Maine, middle schoolers have a laptop in every classroom. That’s not the case in Mississippi or Alabama. The comfort with technology is different when you look across different states. 

MB: Is technology essential to STEM education? 

RKA: More important than anything is an educator in the classroom who understands the material and is willing to be a facilitator of learning for students, not necessarily having all of the answers. Confident educators willing to learn alongside their students is most important. So is having access to technology and resources, but even more important is having access to other teachers who can say, ‘Hey, I’m experiencing this challenge, how did that work in your classroom?’

MB: How many educators has the alliance interacted with?

RKA: We’ve been at 1,000 to 1,500 educators per year for the last five years. That’s held steady even through COVID. We work with educators from pre-K to 12 and our project portfolio is a 50/50 split between supporting formal educators in the classroom and afterschool educators such as librarians and camp counselors.

MB: How is the alliance structured? 

RKA: We have a staff of 30. We just hired a recent college graduate who grew up in Presque Isle, went to school for marketing and social media in Pittsburgh, and now she’ll start working for us as a social media specialist to help get our story out there. We have a number of stories like that — just one example of how one Maine organization can provide exciting job opportunities for Maine residents to come back home to. 

MB: What are other staff roles? 

RKA: We have a number of  teams. The bulk of our staff are STEM education specialists. They are the ones designing our professional learning experiences with educators in STEM disciplines that connect with community and make learning relevant and meaningful for kids. We just created a computer science team. We have a small finance team, a communications and operations team, and a team to design online learning experiences for educators. Our research and evaluation team helps to design the research for our projects, to evaluate our projects and our partner projects, and to link our understanding of how the most cutting edge educational research applies to Maine educators and the services MMSA provides. That’s been a unique and exciting component: we’re not a university,  yet we look to combine the power of research and practice to further STEM education reform.

MB: How is the alliance funded? 

RKA: Mostly through very competitive grants, most from the National Science Foundation. We have an annual operating budget of about $3.8 million. We also receive funding through other federal and state grant programs and we’re growing our corporate giving program and individual philanthropy program.

MB: Could you provide an example of how you connect with educators? 

RKA: A variety of ways. One way is that we’re out in the schools simply listening to needs of educators.  From those conversations and partnerships new projects evolve over time – usually co-designed with educators from the start. For example, this new computer science project evolved as we clearly saw that some schools had the funding and budget to provide computer science education experiences to their students, while others did not.  It became an equity and access concern when our team and the educators we work with saw this stark inequity to learning.  So, we gathered together educators from districts that were willing to dive into understanding the problem of how to integrate computer science into rural classrooms.  And now this amazing collective of educator and administrator leaders get to make their hopes and ideas a reality and share what they are learning with others across the state. Sharing the story of successful STEM education reform strategies, as well as what doesn’t work so well, with educators is a really important component of what we do. Why should an educator in Rangeley have to re-invent the wheel when and educator in Presque Isle has developed a wonderful solution to that same problem? We work closely with the Maine Science Teachers Association and other education and professional groups both in Maine and nationally. As we share what we’re learning, we’re meeting with new educators. They say, ‘That’s pretty cool. How can I get involved?’ 

Another way is our consulting services work. For example, we have a team of math educators who offer free and fee-based workshops to educators to think about computational fluency in the classroom, and offers book study and discussion groups for educators, to think about how to make math learning more fun, exciting, and successful  in their classrooms. 

A third way is active recruitment.  For example, we’re now launching the STEM workforce of 2030 program with the grant from the Alfond Foundation. We’ll be looking for schools interested in offering computer science but don’t have the resources and understanding of how to make that happen yet. 

MB: Is the grant period open now? 

RKA: We’ll probably open applications at the end of January and accept applications through the winter and early spring. We’ll try to make a decision [on grant awardees] by the April break and we’ll have an intensive program this summer. 

MB: How many educators and schools can you fund through the Alfond grant?

RKA: The first year, 20 educators and six schools. We’ll be looking for educators who want to take on a leadership role and work with other educators. For example, the 20 this year would be trained over the next couple of years, and they’ll train an additional 20. We’re looking to build a system that trains educators to train other educators so that the system of support can continue on it’s own over time. Educators know their students best and educators are the engines of change in our classrooms. This professional learning strategy builds on their strengths and networks.  

MB: Why is computer science an important focus area? 

RKA: That’s an area that’s super important in every single aspect of work — everything from dental hygienist to computer programmer to mill worker. Computer science does not equal technology and technology doesn’t equal computer science. Understanding how computers work and how we interact with them productively is and will continue to be an expanding component of  almost every work sector and industry. It’s how we use it and how we think about tackling problems and finding solutions — that is at the root of why computer science education integrated with other subject areas is so important. 

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