Texas A&M PEER Program Receives $1.26 Million Grant To Support Rural STEM Education

Dr. Larry Johnson presenting to students

Dr. Larry Johnson, a professor in the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences’ (CVM) Department of Veterinary Integrative Biosciences (VIBS) and principal investigator for the PEER Program, has received a five-year, $1.26 million Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) grant from the National Institutes of  General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to support science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education in rural middle schools.

The funds will enable the CVM’s Partnership for Environmental Education and Rural Health (PEER) program to:

  • Develop a student-centric app improving the accessibility of PEER materials to rural educators;
  • Revitalize the PEER program website to include compatibility with the newly developed app, updated resources, and enhanced navigation; and
  • Provide teacher trainings focused on student-centered instructional strategies and resources for teaching life science in the motivating context of One Health, which involves the integration of human, animal, and environmental health.

To achieve these aims, the PEER project team will partner with the Center for Educational Technologies and Texas A&M University Departments of Computer Engineering and Agricultural Leadership, Education, and Communications to incorporate curricula materials Johnson and the PEER scientists/educators have created over the past 15 years.

“The partnerships formed with educators and their students here and around the world through our PEER program to support STEM are making lasting, positive impacts on our rural middle school communities,” said Eleanor M. Green, the Carl B. King Dean of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University. “We are proud of this PEER team and the work they do; this NIGMS SEPA award will allow this team to serve rural communities in an even more remarkable way.”

The goal of the project is to further prepare middle school teachers to teach STEM, increase the number of youth who have interactive STEM experiences in school, and increase the number of underrepresented minority students who are knowledgeable about STEM and STEM careers.

This project will target underserved rural communities, concentrating specifically on middle school students who are at a critical period for developing academic competence and choosing a career.

“We generally target middle school students because students in this age group tend to start middle school liking math and science, but leave middle school with a less favorable impression of it,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to prevent this by applying science to something they all like—animals.”

Rural schools often have large minority and educationally underserved populations and are geographically isolated; therefore, students there often have few opportunities to interact with scientists and academic health professionals who might increase their motivation to engage in STEM education and careers. Giving students the opportunity to engage with these professionals offers them the chance to establish mentorships or role models, which, in turn, will allow them to envision themselves in a health or medical career, according to Johnson.

As part of the project, the team will also host teacher professional development workshops at the CVM, during which five educators will travel to College Station to assist in developing curricula that will meet state and national STEM education standards and contain content engaging to students.

“They will help us create materials that match what teachers need in their classrooms by bringing firsthand classroom experience that guarantees resources created are effective and relevant,” Johnson said. “Teachers won’t use our materials if they don’t conform to state standards or can’t be realistically used in a classroom.”

Those materials will cover seven different One Health topics, which also will be translated into Spanish.

“We often create lessons about animals; kids love animals and so it’s an easy transition from teaching them about the science in their pets to the science in themselves,” Johnson said. “We encourage children to learn through things that they like.”

Finally, during the third, fourth, and fifth years of the grant, PEER will travel across the state to host middle school teacher trainings instructing teachers on the use of not only the PEER app, but also the student-centered instruction and curriculum that the app and web-based resources make possible.

“We will help teachers implement the materials we’ve created into their classrooms,” Johnson said.

Other Texas A&M faculty and staff assisting in the project include Christine Budke, Maria Esteve-Gassent, Julie Harlin, William R. Klemm, Noboru Matsuda (now at North Carolina State University), Nicola Ritter, Duncan Walker, and Torri Whitaker.

The PEER program has been providing activities that encourage interest in STEM education for more than 17 years. The popularity of PEER-produced curricula has led to a mailing list that includes 35,000 teachers from across the United States and a YouTube channel with viewers from around the world. PEER curricula receives 50,203 downloads yearly by 2,201 teachers, generating an impact of 199,609 students, 52 percent of which includes minority populations.

In addition to the new project, PEER will continue to have veterinary student led outreach events and scientist-hosted webcasts in support of the SEPA mission.

“Dr. Johnson and his team have had a huge impact, inspiring children and teachers, not only in Texas but throughout the nation with this program,” said Jane Welsh, VIBS interim department head and professor.

The SEPA program which supports pre-kindergarten to 12th grade STEM, informal science education, and science center/museum projects, is located in the Division for Research Capacity Building at NIGMS.  The PEER-based project, Science Promotion in Rural Middle Schools, received a prior (2007-2012) SEPA award .

For more information on the PEER program, visit http://peer.tamu.edu. For more information on the SEPA program, visit https://nihsepa.org.

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