Nurturing Alabama Techies

Posted on December 15, 2017
Students in Alabama learn STEM concepts through hands-on projects as part of a program, sponsored by Tuskegee University. Photo credit: Tuskegee University Math and Science Program.
Students in Alabama learn STEM concepts through hands-on projects as part of a program, sponsored by Tuskegee University. Photo credit: Tuskegee University Math and Science Program.

A National Science Foundation (NSF) INCLUDES grant aimed at increasing middle-school students’ knowledge of computer science will bring to Alabama schools a key missing element: teachers trained in the field. The Computer Science Teachers Association released national standards in July for all schools to provide computer science as part of K-12 education, but only a handful of states have trained computer science teachers to meet the country’s need for such instruction in K-12 education.

 “In October, I had a meeting with the state school superintendent to brief him on what this grant entails. He was very excited because this really fits with the state’s priority, which is to bring computer science to all in Alabama,” says grant recipient Dr. Shaik Jeelani, recipient of Presidential Award for Mentoring, (PAESMEM 2011), vice president of research and dean of Graduate Studies at Tuskegee University in Alabama.

Tuskegee and a group Jeelani formed, called the Alabama Alliance, received the $300,000 grant as part of NSF INCLUDES (which stands for Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science), a national initiative intended to identify and scale proven strategies for creating broader participation of groups traditionally underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. The Alabama Alliance is made up of academic and civic organizations dedicated to improving educational outcomes in the state.

“We (the Alabama Alliance) already had a five-year, NSF-funded grant to help 6th, 7th and 8th grade students do better in mathematics and science because Alabama student achievement in the subjects is among the lowest in the country. So, we wanted to build on that effort,” says Jeelani, who is engaged in research and outreach at Tuskegee, one of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Developing a Pilot

Jeelani says the Alliance’s INCLUDES grant is a Design and Development Launch Pilot (DDLP), created to help accelerate the number of students with STEM knowledge and skills. Recipients of INCLUDES DDLPs are eligible for additional funding if the pilots are successful.

 “The first step is to develop the curriculum that the students will be taught. We also will create a maker space in each of the middle schools we have identified. The grant will furnish everything in that maker space, where teachers will guide students through hands-on experience,” Jeelani explains. Maker spaces provide art supplies, nuts and bolts or computer software and 3D printers to help stimulate students to think critically, design innovative products and understand robotics in a hands-on, less threatening environment than traditional classroom instruction.

Partner selection for the project will also be evolving with an all-hands approach to signing up additional partners.

“When we have our workshops, conferences, and kick-off meetings, we will invite all, so that everyone understands what the scope of the program is. We’re also going to reach out to the other community colleges where there are faculty with expertise in computer science, faculty who have experience in working with K-12 students and teachers.”

Jeelani says the second year of the two-year grant will focus on computer science instruction for 8th grade students at Tipton Durant Middle School (Selma), Tuskegee Institute Middle School (Tuskegee) and Greensboro Middle School (Greensboro). “We’ll be training a teacher and an alternate at each of the three schools. There is often turn-over in the schools, so we want to make certain we have trained enough teachers so there is continuity.”

Spreading the Word

Jeelani says the grant also will leverage the Alliance’s organizations to reach into communities to discuss the value of STEM education for students in Alabama.

“We have identified one church in Tuskegee that has connections with all the churches in the area. Using those connections, we will go to parent gatherings and disseminate information about the program. And, we will have workshops for teachers and parents together to explain the program.”

Jeelani says role models provided by the Alliance’s industry partners, Intel and Microsoft, as well as civic partners, Tuskegee National Alumni Association and the Alabama Black Belt Foundation, also will help to engage students and parents in and outside the classroom.

They [Tuskegee Alumni Association] will be invited to come to the classes and speak to students about why computer science is so critical. Even if they [alumni] don’t have a computer science job, they have a design engineering job, computer expertise and computer literacy play a very strong role in that function,” Jeelani explains.

Jeelani says evaluation has been incorporated into the pilot. However, he says the true test of success will be whether the program motivates 8th grade students to sign up for a computer science program established in Alabama’s feeder high schools.

Envisioned as a model catalyst program, Jeelani says the computer science pilot has the potential to impact the lives of an estimated 20,000 students. If successful, the pilot will create a sound foundation for achieving academic success and economic opportunity for a new generation in Alabama.