UA grad students help Springdale kids prepare for science fair

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The National Science Foundation’s Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program at the University of Arkansas is accepting 10 more students. For more information, visit

A new scholarship at the University of Arkansas is giving future science and math teachers a good start in their careers as they mentor middle school and junior high students.

Eight recipients of the National Science Foundation’s Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program have been helping students in the Springdale School District prepare for science fair projects. The middle school and junior high students showcased the final product of their hard work Friday at the regional science fair at the university’s Center for Math and Science Education.

Students from 11 other school districts in the region also participated in the science fair.

The university received a $ 1.4 million grant from the scholarship program last year to fund tuition and fees for the one-year master of arts in teaching at the University of Arkansas, according to Bill McComas, professor of science education.

The first eight students, known as Noyce fellows, are set to graduate from the program in May, and there are 10 more slots to be filled over the next three years, McComas said.

The fellowship encourages people with a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field to consider teaching, they said. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The program prepares participants to earn their Arkansas teacher’s license for grades 7-12 in biology, chemistry, physics or mathematics. Once they graduate and begin teaching in a high-needs school district, they will receive a $ 10,000 a year scholarship for their first four years of teaching in addition to their salary, McComas said. Altogether, students will receive about $ 60,000, they said.

About 60% of schools in the US are considered high-need, and there is a shortage of teachers in STEM fields, McComas said.

A high-need school district is defined by one National Science Foundation criterion as a district in which at least one school has 50% or more of its students eligible for its free and reduced-price lunch program – a common indicator of poverty within a district, according to the university’s web page about the Noyce fellowship.

“The good news is teaching is a fabulous job and if people want to be a teacher, there will be openings,” McComas said. “It’s almost a guarantee to start at a wonderful profession.”

The four-year commitment to teaching encourages people to stick with the profession long enough to really know if they want to be in it for the long haul, McComas said.

A learning experience

The university partnered with the Springdale School District for the science fair project, McComas said. The district hasn’t been involved with science fairs in recent years, but was ready to start back with support from the program, he said.

The Noyce fellows worked in pairs under the supervision of mentor teachers, he said. The graduate students mentored middle schoolers either in after-school science clubs or during free periods. Funding for the science projects was provided through the grant, so there is no cost for the school district, McComas said.

Noyce fellow Samantha Middleton said she and her teaching partner began preparing for the science fair in August and have worked on it continuously ever since. They worked with Lakeside Junior High School students during a free period about twice a week, she said.

Middleton said she was initially interested in studying life science in graduate school, but switched her focus to education when she learned about the university’s master’s program. At the time, the fellowship hadn’t been awarded yet, but once it became available, professors encouraged her to apply, she said.

Because she has a strong background in science but not necessarily education, the program has helped her learn how to share her knowledge with students through authentic learning experiences, Middleton said.

“I think the experiences I’ve had through Noyce will make me a really unique teacher,” she said.

Noyce fellow Logan Seims said she was studying physics and math and wanted to go into teaching but wasn’t sure how to go about it until a professor visited her class to talk about the Noyce grant.

“I knew I would like it, but I’ve been surprised at how much I love teaching,” she said.

Seims said working with students one-on-one has developed her confidence in her ability to build relationships with students. The science fair has given middle school students an authentic practice to get a feel for what scientists do, she said.

The program focuses on authenticity and agency, McComas said. Agency comes into play when people see themselves doing science.

“It seems to me, a science fair is truly the most authentic thing you can do,” he said. “When else can you be a scientist.”

Fair projects extend over weeks and months, and middle school students have to push through frustration, they said.

Stephen Burgin, associate professor of science education, said he’s noticed Noyce fellows to have more of an ability to talk about what it means to “do science.”

“I have a lot more confidence these future teachers can mentor their own students through things like a science fair,” Burgin said.

Brett Roberts, another Noyce fellow, said the program has taught him a lot of practical skills very quickly.

“I feel like I’m better prepared to be a science teacher ultimately,” he said.

Laura Kent, associate professor of math education, hopes the Noyce fellows will develop as leaders in their field and help the education department learn better ways to recruit more people to teach STEM subjects. She also hopes students will continue the science fair component in whichever districts they are hired in, she said.

The long-term goal is to get more kids excited about math and science, Kent said.

Excited faces

Kim McComas, associate professor of education, and wife of Bill McComas, is collecting informal and formal data on the outcome of the Noyce fellowship as part of the project. Comments from interviews with graduate students in December were positive, she said.

While she hadn’t had a chance to interview any middle school students on Friday, Kim McComas said she saw the students’ excitement on their faces.

“They were so excited to be here and so proud of what they had done,” she said.

Lilly Lee, an eighth-grader, said she has always been interested in science and engineering and saw the science fair as an opportunity to explore a career in STEM. Her science project focused on how caffeinated coffee impacts the growth and height of French marigolds, she said.

She planted the flowers and watered one group with coffee and the other with plain water. Her experiment showed coffee had only a slight impact on the plants, making them grow 0.25% less than their counterparts given plain water, she said.

Lee said she learned about the scientific process, as well as time management, planning ahead and writing down and measuring variables. Being involved also taught her confidence and confirmed her interest in a career in science, she said.

Kiersten Deen, a science teacher at Lakeside Junior High, mentored a graduate student and served as a liaison between the Noyce fellow and the middle school students in her class.

The middle school students who chose to participate this year are already looking forward to next year’s science fair, Deen said. Lakeside serves a very low socioeconomic status population, so the opportunity to get involved in the science fair and visit the University of Arkansas was very exciting to students, she said.

“I think it’s highly beneficial for them,” she said.

Ty Murdock, from left, a Noyce Fellow at the University of Arkansas studying teacher education talk with Kayla Tittle and Summer Pononar from Central Junior High in Springdale about their science fair entry. Murdock mentors a science student at their school as part of his fellowship. (NWA Democrat-Gazette / Spencer Tirey)

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