Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

FALL 2012

The Office of STEM Education Partnerships connects K–12 students Photo By Steve Drey

The Office of STEM Education Partnerships connects K–12 students with Northwestern’s cutting-edge science.

OSEP assists schools in three areas: teacher professional development, Photo By Steve Drey

OSEP assists schools in three areas: teacher professional development, creation of new STEM programs and technology, and capacity building.


By Marilyn Sherman

The Office of STEM Education Partnerships served approximately 22,500 students and 280 teachers at 84 schools last year, linking K-12 schools with Northwestern’s cutting-edge science along with educational tools and expertise.

Sixth and seventh graders from Nettelhorst School in Chicago came to campus to meet a molecule they had heard about - but it was 10 feet tall and 3-D. Wearing special glasses, they viewed a giant computer model of the molecule that Northwestern doctoral student Kristin Labby had been telling them she researches in the Silverman Lab to develop medicines for diseases like Parkinson’s.

Through a program of the Office of STEM Education Partnerships (OSEP) and the Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA), Labby acted as a “resident scientist” for middle school classes. Part of a National Science Foundation GK12 program, Reach for the Stars pairs graduate students in science disciplines with classroom teachers. Labby’s partner teacher, Pamela Sims, reports enthusiastically, “The kids are more interested in science!”

Reach for the Stars is one of many school outreach programs of OSEP, housed at the School of Education and Social Policy. OSEP is Northwestern’s go-to office for connecting the leading-edge science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) resources of Northwestern with curious minds in K-12 classrooms.

Linking to schools

In the YouSTEM after-school programs, high school students drop in to participate in “cool” science challenges

“From the education community’s perspective, we serve as a single point of contact into the University around STEM,” says SESP research associate professor Kemi Jona, the director of OSEP. Schools approach OSEP with their needs in science and mathematics, just as universities contact OSEP as a STEM education leader.

With staff in SESP, OSEP offers schools expertise in education to add to Northwestern’s expertise in science. “We are able to get out the best resources, the most cutting-edge curricula, the most current technologies to teachers and students,” says associate director Amy Pratt.

Over the last few years OSEP has exploded in its ability to serve schools. “Our key innovation as we’ve grown as an office is to understand the grassroots needs of our partner schools,” says Jona.

Three types of outreach

OSEP assists schools primarily in three areas: teacher professional development, creation of new STEM programs and technology, and capacity building.

Through teacher professional development, OSEP funnels new curricula and tools to STEM teachers. A good example is the Northwestern University Biology Investigations in Oncofertility (NUBIO) program that was developed with Teresa Woodruff, Feinberg School of Medicine professor of obstetrics and gynecology, and her team. This summer OSEP collaborated with partners to offer NUBIO workshops in biotechnology to teachers and to provide them with access to equipment and online resources. In total, OSEP offered 13 professional development programs in STEM content areas from environmental science to computational thinking.

NUBIO started with teachers doing a research experiment in the Woodruff lab. To teach biology concepts ranging from diffusion to DNA and enzyme reactions to endocrine systems, OSEP staff and biology teachers built a high school biology curriculum that embeds Woodruff’s pioneering research in oncofertility. This emerging field focuses on preserving the fertility of cancer patients. “It gives context to biology, and oncofertility is especially motivating for students, we found, because most students know someone who has cancer and also because oncofertility is centered around young patients,” says Kristen Perkins, coordinator of NUBIO.

In fact, one of OSEP’s strengths is its innovative use of technology. For NUBIO, OSEP created a website with 150 video clips of Northwestern experts answering common student questions. “Using that technology allows us to share the expertise of Northwestern with thousands of students without taking up the time of faculty,” Jona notes. In another project called Remote Online Labs, OSEP developed remote laboratories so that any school — no matter what its resources — can access world-class lab equipment.

A second way OSEP reaches schools is by developing new STEM programs and technology. The YouSTEM after-school program is an example. High school students drop in at schools, libraries, youth centers and other kid-friendly spaces to participate in “cool” science challenges such as programming robots, designing phone applications and printing 3D prototypes.

To build skills, YouSTEM combines highly motivating activities with the kind of leveling-up platform used in video games. “It’s designed to grab the kids who aren’t already excelling in STEM in school,” notes Pratt. “If they can be successful at programming a robot or building an app, they can be successful in the classroom too.”

Finally, OSEP serves schools through capacity building. “Teachers often come to us and say they need a program,” says Pratt. OSEP is able to partner with faculty and external partners such as corporations and foundations to create the resources that they need.

That’s how the STEM Student Research program was born. Science teachers wanted support for student research projects. In response and with funding from the Motorola Solutions Foundation, OSEP developed a 10-week course to help teachers design research programs for their students. OSEP also created an online forum — like an Internet dating service — where students post their research abstracts and match with faculty and graduate students doing research in that area. “OSEP receives many requests to connect with Northwestern scientists as mentors,” says OSEP assistant director Michelle Paulsen.

School scientists

A key goal for OSEP is to make the way science is taught in schools more similar to the way science looks in university and industry labs. “We’re trying to close the gap between school science and real science,” says Jona. “The theme across all efforts is to bring authentic tools and practices into the classroom for bridging the gap and creating excitement for learning.”

“Engaging students in real science both motivates and excites them,” he maintains. For example, a new computational thinking project is designing exciting activities for teachers to use. In one activity developed with Vicky Kalogera, director of CIERA, students can solve a mystery to determine where black holes are located.

In addition, programs like Reach for the Stars not only help teachers stay current in science but also introduce students to science as a career. “Young students have no idea what being a graduate student is like. The idea that they’re doing research is fascinating to them,” notes Paulsen. She sees OSEP’s programs changing students’ perception of scientists and broadening their perspective of what science is.

Northwestern Priorities

OSEP began in 2006 with the goal of supporting Northwestern faculty researchers in developing grant proposals and projects with K-12 education components. To this day, OSEP helps faculty researchers with outreach to schools. “OSEP has resources and expertise to translate cutting-edge science to K-12 classrooms, help faculty create education outreach plans, match them with schools and teachers, and manage relationships,” explains Pratt.

“OSEP started as a service office for faculty and has evolved into an important partner for supporting the University’s mission in terms of community engagement,” says Jona. “We’re supporting and broadening the idea of being a good neighbor with Chicago Public Schools too.”

Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard says, “STEM education and career exploration is a priority for CPS. The partnership with Northwestern’s OSEP allows our students to engage in STEM exploration in meaningful and exciting ways, while also affording our teachers the opportunity to bring STEM into the classroom in ways that engage students and extend the learning beyond the school day and the walls of the school building.”

OSEP’s service to schools reflects a key priority of Northwestern’s new strategic plan, which emphasizes reaching out to the community. As a living embodiment of that goal, Kristen Perkins of OSEP serves as the new ETHS-Northwestern partnership coordinator, operating out of a purple office in Evanston Township High School. She coaches the science department and facilitates other links between the high school and the University, in areas from drama to journalism to engineering. As part of Northwestern’s Good Neighbor, Great University initiative, OSEP also plans events to connect Evanston and Northwestern, such as a semiannual Kits ‘n’ Cats Day on campus to encourage high school sophomores to attend college.

For the future, OSEP is working on finding ways to reach more teachers and students and to communicate best practices more broadly. Jona says, “When it comes to helping the community, being a resource to schools is core.”