State and local officials announced Tuesday that a professional development program at the Connecticut Science Center will triple in size thanks to a donation from the Andrew J. and Joyce D. Mandell Family Foundation.
The program currently enrolls about 500 teachers per year, but with the new funding it will expand to 1,500 per year and soon will begin awarding graduate-level college credit.
The size of grant was not disclosed, but Connecticut Science Center President and CEO Matt Fleury said the Mandells’ grant is “the biggest grant the Connecticut Science Center has received since it was opened.”
“I’m really not publicizing the size of the grant, but it will carry the program forward for many years,” Andrew Mandell said Tuesday.
His wife, Joyce, said that the potential for economic and educational growth was a large reason they decided to give the program the financial backing it needed to expand.
“A great part of the reason that we’re so enamored with the thought of this program was the outreach that it will have to teachers and children, and the changes that would happen in terms of the competitive nature of students,” Joyce Mandell said. “Teaching teachers how to connect with their students is one of the more important things that we’ve ever been involved in.”
Fleury said the program focuses on how teachers can improve methods of teaching science, technology, math, and engineering (STEM) related fields in order to invigorate teachers and, in turn, invigorate their students.
“Do the math,” Fleury said. “1,500 teachers touch a lot of kids. They touch more than 70,000 kids in a year. We’re in a position to, in just a few years, impact hundreds of thousands of students.”
Connecticut Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said STEM fields are rightly the focus because of the increasing share of the job market and economy that they represent.
“Workers in STEM fields play a direct role in fueling economic growth. It’s estimated that 20 percent of all jobs,” are STEM related. “We’re making the right investments,” he said.
The program offers specific training courses that focus on how to teach a particular subject, such as erosion or energy. But the academy’s “pedagogical method” program, or “Inquiry Teaching and Learning” series, is the program that offers a postgraduate-level college credit.
Up to nine credits are offered to teachers through Charter Oak State College, which accredited the academy after an “intensive evaluation” of its inquiry program. Three credits are awarded per year after completion of a “rigorous” week-long program with the academy.
Ed Klonoski, Charter Oak State College’s president, said nine credits is typically the maximum number that can be transferred to a graduate school should a teacher decide to continue pursuing a master’s degree. Klonoski added, in total, a master’s degree requires 36 to 60 credits.
“We try not create anything that’s useless. We want to make sure the credits are useful,” Klonoski said. “I think this program is going to establish a very large connection between STEM education in the state of Connecticut, the Science Center, teachers that do that education, and those of us with teenagers at home who desperately want them to receive it.”
According to Hank Gruner, the vice president of programs at the Connecticut Science Center, the programs range in cost from about $100 per teacher per day to $1,300 per week, but private grants are often used to subsidize or cover the cost of enrollment.
Fleury added that school districts will often enroll its teachers and shoulder the costs in whole or in part.
“The best school districts satisfy teachers’ hunger for excellence by finding opportunities for them to get better,” he said.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy joined officials at the press conference Tuesday to applaud the expansion and point out its role as an asset to his own efforts to expand STEM at the college level through his $1.5 billion Next Generation Connecticut plan. “NextGen” seeks to increase the number of engineering degrees awarded at the University of Connecticut by 70 percent.
“In a short period of time UConn and our other state universities will be inviting, as freshman, students whose lives have been changed by teachers whose teaching has been changed as a result of the Mandell [Academy],” Malloy said.
Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra said that although the Hartford School district had been historically troubled, the expansion of the professional development program and others like it are key initiatives to climbing out of the bottom ranks.
“This is an important initiative to make our city grow and to make our region grow,” Segarra said. “This program is an example of what we can do. . .to give our kids a better opportunity.”
Keith Sevigny, a graduate of the Science Center’s professional development program and a teacher at Annie Fisher STEM Magnet School in Hartford, said the program offers teachers like him an opportunity to adjust to their learning curve in the rapidly-changing world of technology.
He said the academy instructs teachers how to “cultivate children as critical thinkers rather than as memorizers of fact.”
Sevigny added that it’s “not enough just to tell teachers to prepare for the changes that are coming in the future. The game itself is changing.”
Pryor said that focusing on STEM programs would not only aid Hartford in closing the nation’s largest achievement gap between high- and low-income students, but also the achievement gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world.
He pointed to a recent report by America Achieves that said middle class students in the U.S. lag behind 15 countries in science and 24 countries in math.
“We have a long way to go before we are fully competitive on the science and mathematics fronts as a nation,” Pryor said.
He added that Connecticut is “outflanked” by New Jersey, Massachusetts, Texas, North Dakota, and South Dakota in 8th-grade mathematics.
“We’re a high performing state, but we’re getting passed by, and our country is getting passed by,” Pryor said. “This [program] is an investment in our children’s future, in fact in our state and nation’s future.”