A new approach to learning: Grant will go toward creating programs to integrate math, science

The Fortuna Elementary School District was recently awarded a $1.3 million grant from the California Department of Education as part of the Humboldt Interdisciplinary STEM Initiative.

STEM -- Science, Technology, Engineering and Math -- is a new buzz word being used across the country and by the Department of Education when talking about the science, technology, engineering and math aspects of the Common Core State Standards, the district's project coordinator Michael Kauffmann said.

The standards are nationwide learning benchmarks that go into effect in the 2014-2015 school year for California and 44 other states, as a way to better prepare students for college and their future careers.

"The grant is spread out over three years, and it will provide professional development for about 45 to 50 teachers in the county for grades six through 12," Kauffmann said. "It will be administered by the Fortuna district, but distributed across the county, including schools in Arcata, Fortuna, McKinleyville and the Trinity River Valley."

Kauffmann is currently working with principals and superintendents to get teachers involved, with applications going out next week. He added that coaches will also work in the classroom with participating teachers.

"This grant provides funding at and across school sites for some math and science teachers to work together in groups to create new and exciting programs for kids," he said.

The grant is part of the standards for math and science, which is a set of educational standards intended to create consistency in educational expectations across the nation, according to Kauffmann.

"There used to be so many old standards that teachers got caught up trying to teach all of them and students weren't remembering materials as well the next day," Kauffmann said. "With the new standards, teachers are able to go more in-depth and make teaching more direct, experiential and inquiry-based to challenge students."

Humboldt State University professors Jeffrey White, Dale Oliver and Julie Van Sickle are the three members of a professional development team that will be carrying out the training session for teachers involved.

"The teachers will attend a week-long program in August, and then we'll do follow up meetings with them three times every semester," said White, a professor of biological sciences. "They'll be taking a close look at the common core standards content in math and science."

In addition, there will be regional partners to give expertise on topics being explored and offer guidance as the program unfolds, according to White.

The program will be based around natural resources and renewable energy with a focus on technology, Kauffmann said.

"This is a multi-layered program and what we're doing is creating a situation where teachers are getting paid to create programs that give hands-on learning experiences to kids," Kauffmann said.

Van Sickle said the grant affects several schools in an isolated region that does not allow for many opportunities for districts to work together.

"This program encompasses a lot of the region and allows middle school teachers to come together to discuss how to teach their subjects, and then discuss it with the high school teachers that will be doing the same subject," she said.

Jack Bareilles, grants and evaluation administrator for the Northern Humboldt Union High School District, helped author the grant and has the role of supporting effective technology.

"One of the things that's going to be a challenge is really focusing in on whether or not the kids are effectively using the math practices and science standards in the Common Core program," Bareilles said.