by Ann Augspurger / Mar 7, 2014
The Office for Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education (MSTE) helps grade-school children with weighty questions such as:
How does wind get converted into energy, and how does that energy power my home?
What are smart grid concepts, and how does the newer technology prevent my power from going out at home?
MSTE, an outreach unit within the College of Education since 1993, has been working to answer these questions with its widely used school curriculum resource materials. MSTE collaborates with units across campus to enhance the quality of mathematics and science teaching. It then goes one step further to explore mathematical and scientific concepts that are, or could effectively be, nested in technology.
George Reese, who started at MSTE as a doctoral student in 1994 and is now the current director, described his unit as innovative and flexible, with an entrepreneurial focus.
“We all work together effectively to find and support new ideas in technology-based teacher professional development and the dissemination of University research,” he said.
The office works closely with K-12 school administrators, teachers, parents, and students to effectively utilize technology-based approaches to learning. MSTE is also well-known for EtoysIllinois, a program that helps K-12 students in Illinois school districts investigate ideas using the language of the computer.
“Where I think MSTE led and continues to lead is the empowering of teachers as part of technologically sophisticated professionals working collaboratively in ever-growing communities of practice,” Reese said.
Reese cited mathematics in Champaign high schools and computing in Kenwood Elementary in Champaign as two sites in which MSTE’s influence has empowered teachers.
Director emeritus Kenneth Travers said the idea for the office was conceived during a conversation with Theodore Brown, former vice chancellor of academic affairs. Travers proposed the idea of an office after serving a three-year stint as a division director for the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C.
Eventually, the shared goal was to centralize on-campus programs for K-12 students.
"I got to know Ted Brown in Washington, and when I got back to campus we talked about what we might do," Travers recalled. "We came up with this notion of being an office that would be sort of a catalyst for the many activities going on."
The idea was hatched to develop a database of all K-12-related programs offered by the U of I. Travers said they initially estimated there might be 60 or 70 programs, but the final number was 120.
“That was sort of the precursor to the portal," Travers said, referring to the popular U of I Public Engagement Portal, which MSTE now maintains.
Travers said the timing of MSTE's creation was fortuitous since it began when the Internet was in its infancy. The office developed a website to showcase some of its initial projects. As he recalls, many people showed up to that early presentation out of curiosity about the Internet. MSTE gladly welcomed the interest.
Travers, Brown, and other MSTE advisers were thinking in the short term then—the possibility of a 20-year anniversary was not on their radars.
"We weren't looking 20 years down the road, and we certainly never thought it would last that long," Travers said. He added that he didn't think its longevity would be possible without handing the torch to Reese.
From the get-go, the office placed a strong emphasis in mathematics because of the impressive math background of Travers and Reese; since then, the science portion has gained momentum.
"That has been an important shift," Travers said.
Reese agrees, saying, "We were STEM, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, before STEM was even an acronym."
Reese talked fondly of the early major partnerships MSTE formed. The first was with the Technology Center of DuPage, and the second was with Bradley-Bourbonnais High School. MSTE's role was to serve as a consultant to the two organizations, which involved writing grants and curriculum, as well as training teachers in math and science technology.
In 2000, MSTE won a $600,000 grant from the Illinois State Board of Education to develop and disseminate middle school mathematics curriculum over a three-year period. That program is known as M2T2 (mathematics materials for tomorrow's teachers), and Travers and Reese fondly refer to the dissemination model as "train the trainer" workshops. M2T2 curriculum materials continue to be available for free on the MSTE website and serve as foundational resources for MSTE.
Reese touched on a human element of MSTE's work, saying, "I think we provided a way for teacher-leaders to shine." He cited an example in Kathleen Harness, a retired teacher from Champaign, who has developed much of the content for EToysIllinois.
As mathematics, science and technology continue to evolve, MSTE will likely remain at the forefront 20 years onward, guiding teachers, developing specialized curriculum, and serving as a clearinghouse for mathematics and science classroom resources.
Above photo by Brock Orr. Used with permission from Champaign Schools.
Photo Gallery: MSTE—20 Years of Impacting Education...
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Editor's note: Along with Travers and Reese, MSTE accomplishes its goals with the dedication and help of numerous staff. See a listing of MSTE employees.