Montclair State Researchers Awarded NSF STEM +Computing Grant

Project to integrate computational and mathematical thinking into earth and environmental science teaching

Earth and environmental science, which touches on scientific disciplines from biology, chemistry and physics to ecology, oceanography, and behavioral and economic sciences, is a fertile field for researchers wishing to study and enhance STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) teaching and learning.

A team of Montclair State University researchers was recently awarded a three-year, $1,147,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to do just that with “Assimilating Computational and Mathematical Thinking into Earth and Environmental Science,” a multidisciplinary project submitted to the NSF by Montclair State’s PSEG Institute of Sustainability Studies and departments of Computer Science, Earth and Environmental Studies and Mathematical Sciences.

“This innovative program embodies STEM the way it should be, by breaking down traditional disciplinary boundaries and appealing to children’s natural creativity and curiosity to explore their world, connect with the environment and solve problems,” says College of Science and Mathematics Interim Dean Lora Billings.

Funds from the STEM + Computing, or STEM+C grant, will be evenly dispersed over the next three years by the NSF’s Division of Research on Learning to the Montclair State team that includes: Principal Investigator, Computer Science Professor Michelle Zhu and Co-Principal Investigators Mathematical Sciences Professor Nicole Panorkou, Computer Science Professor Bharath Samanthula, and Earth and Environmental Studies professor and PSEG Institute of Sustainability Studies Associate Director Pankaj Lal.

By developing a program of novel instructional modules, hands-on activities, and laboratory and field experiences, the team seeks to integrate computational and mathematical thinking into earth and environmental science instruction for students in grades 5, 6 and 7.

Approximately 25 teachers and 2,820 students attending low-performing area elementary and middle schools will participate in the project. The University team will devise professional development activities for teachers and also monitor the efficacy of their curriculum on both students and teachers.

“I believe that a program aiming for a seamless integration of mathematics, computer science and environmental science demands significant input from all disciplines,” says Panorkou, who will lead the assimilation of mathematical thinking into the instructional units. “We all have varied backgrounds and bring a wealth of experience and perspectives to the project. As a math educator, I’m looking forward to providing opportunities for students to see the purpose and utility of math by integrating it with earth and environmental and computational thinking.”

Zhu, who is heading efforts to design, develop and assimilate computational thinking into the proposed 12 curricular modules, looks forward to working directly with students and teachers from local school districts. “I hope these modules will not only make science learning attractive, but will also get students interested in developing computer programs to solve STEM-related problems in the future,” she says.

Under the direction of Lal, the project will also hold a summer institute for K-12 students and teachers at the University. “The summer institute will let participating students and teachers visit campus for three weeks,” he says. “Students will be able to learn in the University’s state-of-the-art scientific facilities, as well as at Montclair State’s School of Conservation in Stokes State Forest. The idea is to bring them in and show them that science is fun and engaging, so that they can continue to pursue STEM courses as their academic careers advance.”

Technology itself will play a supporting role in the project. Samanthula will be instrumental in developing and implementing a web-based virtual classroom and digital support platform to facilitate the development and use of the instructional modules, teacher professional development activities and project assessments.

University students will also be able to contribute to this project. According to Zhu, the team will recruit two PhD, two master’s and two undergraduate students to begin work on the project by the spring semester.

“The most important aspect of this project is exploring how human beings interact with the natural environment to meet the development needs of society and how this contributes to innovations that address ecosystem challenges such as climate change,” explains Lal. “We believe this focus is particularly useful for preparing the next generation of innovators in the United States.”

The STEM+C grant is one of several new grants awarded to researchers at Montclair State University, which was recently designated a public research university by the State of New Jersey. These awards include an NSF INCLUDES award to tackle underrepresentation of low-income, minority and women students in STEM disciplines through interdisciplinary teamwork. Learn more about funded research initiatives at