Working to increase seventh and eighth grade student readiness and interest in science and technology, Professor of Education Katherine Hayden and Professor of Computer Science Youwen Ouyang are starting at the front of the class with middle school science teachers through a collaborative project called iQUEST.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the three-year grant, which was awarded $1.49 million in 2009, helps teachers expand their expertise in science and technology to better educate, engage and inspire their students in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known as the STEM disciplines.

National studies have shown that by the time students complete eighth grade, nearly 50 percent have lost interest in science, deeming it irrelevant to their education or future plans. Experiences in middle school often influence coursework decisions in high school and later impact the degree a student pursues in college. That reality is leaving a large gap in the workforce as economists estimate that by 2018 more than eight million jobs in the U.S. will require a college degree in a STEM field.

“By working directly with middle school teachers, we can reach and serve more students, and build a sustainable model that impacts learning, improves the perception of STEM disciplines and encourages students to pursue science and technology-intensive careers,” said Hayden.

Working toward long-term solutions, iQUEST provides two years of professional development for 45 middle school science teachers from nearly every North County school district, with an emphasis on those who primarily teach underserved or underrepresented students. During the summer, teachers participate in a three-day academy to gear up for the upcoming school year, followed by monthly workshops to keep on track. The trainings focus on developing innovative lesson plans, identifying available resources and learning how to utilize new technology to engage students in investigations that lead to deeper understanding of scientific concepts.

“Simply learning out of a textbook can be incredibly static for teenagers,” said Ouyang, emphasizing the value technology brings to the learning experience. “When students can interact with technology, they are more engaged in active learning, which further fuels  their interest in science.”

Among the many resources utilized in iQUEST are interactive and educational software games created by computer science undergraduates. To teach the principles of physics for example, CSUSM students developed an online water balloon game requiring middle schoolers to calculate the force, distance and proper angle to launch the balloon toward a virtual target.

In addition to working with teachers, iQUEST has hosted five weeklong day camps on campus during the summer for middle school students who will be entering into one of the classes of a participating teacher. At the camp, students engage in science-based experiments, including the dissection of a bovine eye and simulated archaeological digs, while using technological devices to measure, collect and analyze their findings. Students are also introduced to STEM careers through an interactive video conference call with a scientist  from Rochester Institute of Technology and hands-on tours of research laboratories and the University’s School of Nursing.

With the grant coming to a close in 2012, Hayden and Ouygang have begun exploring additional funding opportunities to expand the program to offer more summer camps and increase the number of teacher participants.

“iQUEST is a highly effective program that both empowers teachers and engages students in real scientific inquiries,” added Hayden. “The work we’re doing is making a difference in helping students see themselves as scientists.

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“iQUEST is a highly effective program that both empowers teachers and engages students in real scientific inquiries. The work we’re doing is making a difference in helping students see themselves as scientists.

—CSUSM Professor of Education Katherine Hayden