College launches new program in elementary STEM education

August 01, 2012

First-grade teacher Amy Leckron explains the Barbie creature she designed to live on another planet during a STEM education course.

Thanks to a partnership between McDaniel, Carroll County Schools and the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA), 37 elementary school teachers are expanding their skills in teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

McDaniel alumna Sharon Wensel Bowers ’78, M.Ed. ’84, distinguished educator-in-residence and associate director at NIA’s Center for Integrative STEM Education, is the course designer and instructor. The invited teachers from Carroll County began their coursework online and then spent four days in a hands-on workshop.


National Institute of Aerospace educator in residence and McDaniel alumna Sharon Wensel Bowers ’78, M.Ed. ’84 is the STEM education course designer and instructor.

STEM 501 is the first of five courses in McDaniel’s newest graduate series and will conclude in October when the participants will come together online to discuss how they have applied the tools, resources and strategies they learned in class. This series of courses is expected to be either a certificate or certification program.

Graduate and Professional Studies dean Henry Reiff says there is no doubt about the pilot program’s importance and even necessity as the U.S. tries to boost student achievement in STEM areas.

“It’s Sputnik all over again,” Reiff says, referring to the first artificial Earth satellite launched by the Soviet Union on Oct. 4, 1957, which sparked the space race and an emphasis, however temporary, on education in the sciences. “There’s a need for better STEM education in elementary school – and teachers need the tools, resources and strategies to make these topics exciting and interesting.”

The McDaniel STEM program is designed to show teachers best practice approaches to integrate STEM topics into classroom learning. Courses that follow the initial “Practical Applications for Elementary STEM Education” include STEM Education Roots, STEM Issues and Trends, STEM Methods and Materials and STEM Action Research.

“It’s not just about growing scientists and engineers,” says Bowers, a middle school science teacher who has been “on loan” from Virginia Beach City Public Schools to NIA for the past eight years. “It’s also about helping all children have a level of STEM literacy so that they can better understand their world.”

And it isn’t about content alone, Bowers says. Youngsters need to learn the processes of STEM – to think critically, to solve problems creatively, to gather data and use it to form good arguments.

“Young children have a naturally inquisitive nature,” she says. “But many teachers don’t have a deep comfort in STEM areas.”

Teachers participating in the hands-on workshop collected an arsenal of tools to use in the classroom, according to Cynthia Eckenrode, an elementary supervisor with Carroll County Schools. And even this initial course alone is bound to increase teacher comfort in STEM areas.

“The teachers created personal floatation devices, shower clocks and creatures that could survive on various planets,” says Eckenrode, who originally approached Reiff to ask for the college’s help in developing a STEM education program for Carroll County teachers. “Our teachers had many opportunities to engage in activities that allowed them to demonstrate the ‘habits of mind’ of scientists, technicians, engineers and mathematicians. They were delighted with this experience.”

Miriam Krumrine, fifth-grade teacher at Charles Carroll Elementary School, says being a 21st century learner will help her become a better 21st-century teacher.

“Encouraging questions and digging for answers, the STEM class was engaging and so wonderfully informative,” says Krumrine.  

As an educator-in-residence at NIA, Bowers’ focuses on developing a variety of educational programs and projects that help prepare teachers to integrate STEM topics into their classroom teaching. Development of the five-course STEM program for McDaniel is just one of her many projects – albeit one that is close to her heart.

“I grew up in Carroll County and still have deep roots here and at McDaniel,” says Bowers, a doctoral candidate in Integrative STEM Education at Virginia Tech University. “For me, this is like coming home.”