Meeting the Challenge

‌by Amy Wagner

What can you build with strands of raw spaghetti, tape, a marshmallow and string? This was the challenge presented to 20 teachers attending the Wipro Science Education Fellowship (SEF) program’s induction meeting at Montclair State in June, as a way to get them thinking creatively and working as a team.

Wipro, an India-based global IT company, recently awarded a 5-year $1.3 million grant to Mika Munakata, Collette Killian and Jackie Willis of Montclair State’s College of Science and Mathematics, and Emily Klein and Monica Taylor of the College of Education and Human Services to implement its SEF leadership training program for K-12 science teachers.

“This is the only partnership we have of this kind in the U.S.,” says Nikki Vasser Glee, Senior Manager in Human Resources at Wipro. “We have never done anything like this in the United States.”

“The 20 fellows in our first cohort were introduced to the Wipro SEF program ideals and model at the June induction meeting,” says Munakata. “Morale was high and the excitement was palpable.”

The teachers began by working on team-building with the TED talk-inspired marshmallow challenge.

Kristen Tarabocchia, a member of the class of 2008 and one of four alumnae in Cohort 1, worked collaboratively with her teammates on the challenge. “We were given 20 minutes to construct the tallest freestanding structure with our materials,” she recalls. “We quickly discovered how to work together as a team to come up with the best possible product.”

Supporting teacher leaders

Over the next five years, more than 60 teachers from high-needs schools in Clifton, Montclair, Kearney, Orange and Paramus will take part in the professional development program. Each teacher receives a $10,000 stipend for participating for two years in the program, which includes meetings with their teams and with the group as a whole, says Munakata.

Wipro SEF fosters emerging teacher leadership and supports scientific research in the classroom by focusing on reflective practice, inquiry-based pedagogies, classroom research and leadership activities. Participants will also be prepared to help their districts support and retain new teachers.

“This is an excellent opportunity for teachers like me to work together to enhance our own teaching practices,” says Tarabocchia, who teaches chemistry at Paramus High School. “I’ll be able to give and receive feedback on different classroom techniques to help me improve my teaching.”

The teachers are identifying content and pedagogy areas on which to concentrate. “I hope to focus on areas in science that will give students a deeper understanding of the content and connect that understanding to real-world experiences,” says Tarabocchia.


A collaborative project

The Montclair State team is partnering with the University of Massachusetts-Boston, which is running a parallel program involving five Boston-area school districts. In June, Montclair State’s five-member leadership team and five school district coordinators spent two days in Boston on a joint retreat that solidified program objectives with their UMass counterparts.

“Wipro is deeply committed to improving school education, especially for the disadvantaged. Our collaboration with UMass-Boston and Montclair State is for this purpose,” says Anurag Behar, chief sustainability officer at Wipro.

Says Munakata: “Ultimately, these teachers will be in positions to enact positive change within their schools, their districts and beyond. We hope they will form a community of SEF science teachers and form long-lasting, productive, professional ties.”