An Interview with Dr. Reagan Flowers: CSTEM Challenge

Jul 29, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1) The theme of this contest was “Transforming Education: Investment, Innovation and Inclusion.” How does your proposal relate to these themes?

CSTEM has operated in over 260 Pre-Kindergarten to 12th grade schools. The highlights of CSTEM’s program focuses on curriculum enhancement and student learning in areas of robotics; environmental conservation and sustainability; geographical information systems (GIS); art; 3-dimensional geometry; creative writing; and social media. CSTEM invests in schools by bringing on corporate and philanthropic partners whose sponsorship provide resources for STEM and educational/instructional tool-kits, content expertise for curriculum development, industry mentors, internships and academic scholarships. Our pioneering efforts are built on a collaborative framework that runs across the vertical (grade levels including elementary, middle, and high school) and horizontal (wide range of content areas: science, math, writing, social studies etc.) continuum. Program participants are assigned to develop projects based on identifying practical solutions to real-world challenges dealing with technology, creativity, and sustainability. The primary mission of CSTEM is to help close the academic achievement gap for minority and underrepresented children. We achieve this by making access to opportunity available for all students, and by focusing on the content areas of mathematics, science, art, technology, writing, and social studies.

2) In your mind, what areas of education need to be transformed?

Transformation of education begins with leadership at the school level, which includes administrators and instructors. For teachers to be effective, they need the support of school principals, particularly from a policy standpoint of encouraging innovation. For teachers to achieve success in the classroom, adequate training is needed that focuses on professional development models that, given the right resources, can be translated into practical exercises that foster the growth and development of the student. Other areas needing transformation include opening lines of communication at all levels, testing, teacher mentoring models, budgeting priorities, alignment of student achievement initiatives, and teacher accountability systems.

3) In your opinion, where does money need to be invested?

Education funds are best invested in teacher training and development, as well as on technology, tools, and resources that enable implementation of innovative teaching models that go beyond the confines of the traditional classroom environment.

4) What are some particularly innovative things that you have seen or suggested?

The CSTEM Challenge model proposes a platform that is built on a comprehensive approach that supports teachers and students with specific target goals and self evaluative opportunities, so as to improve teacher performance and increase student engagement over the course of an academic year. Participating teachers begin work with their students at the beginning of the academic year, and the work culminates at the international competition towards the end of the school year. The students and their teachers compete with their artifact solutions to real world problems in six or more challenges each year.

Other models we have seen as innovative include robotics competitions that allow students to compete on teams to accomplish tasks and programs that help middle and high school students discover their potential in engineering.

5) What do you mean by inclusion and why is it important?

CSTEM provides an opportunity for those students falling through the cracks of that ever-widening achievement gap, an opportunity to get on par with their counterparts who are doing better. The Challenge gives students with limited exposure to communication; science; technology; engineering and mathematics a true connection and an opportunity to team up with and compete against students of all racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. The experience enriches their minds and offers an opportunity to engage in hands-on learning that can be applied individually or collectively in a group project. CSTEM’s partipant population is inclusive of underserved and underrepresented students including 91% minority (Black and Hispanic) students and 45% female students. Our efforts have resulted in over 53% of CSTEM participants’ graduating high school to pursue a STEM related degree at a college or university. Furthermore, 94% of our students report that they want to continue in the program, while 100% indicate that CSTEM provided their first true academic enrichment experience (i.e. robotics, GIS, digital fabrication, etc.). Inclusiveness matters to our organization because we recognize the need for diversity in order to compete in today’s global marketplace, its necessity in maintaining sustainability and competitiveness in the future, and its critical importance in stemming the tide of perpetual impoverishment and helping us avoid furthering the divide between the “haves” and “have nots”.

6) Any additional comments you’d like to provide?

Minority and economically disadvantaged students have historically never been encouraged to participate in or prepare for academic backgrounds in STEM, when compared to their Anglo counterparts. Research over the last 40 years has consistently displayed a continued widening of the achievement gap, confirming that different measures need to be put into practice to reverse this educational proclivity that has gone on far too long. The number of schools serving inadequately represented populations in STEM is rapidly dwindling due to our overall education crisis. Our methods have yielded some positive outcomes, however, the magnitude of the greater crisis is not fully accounted for and can sometimes appear to be overwhelming. The performance and academic data we have collected serve as evidence that the quality of education can be improved in a scalable and sustainable manner, provided the right improvements are put in place and transformation is allowed to run its course, and occurs beyond the school building into the communities that are being served. CSTEM has not only given myself and others the experience of learning at a greater level, but it has also given us the rare chance of interacting at an in-depth level with the gems that will be our changemakers of the future.

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