Reach for the Stars Puts Scientists in Classrooms

Reach for the Stars Puts Scientists in Classrooms

Reach for the Stars

Grad students will spend a year teaching in area schools and sharing cutting-edge research

Thanks to a large National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, seven Northwestern University graduate students will be "resident scientists" at Chicago-area middle and high schools this fall, integrating their research into the science curriculum. The NSF fellows and their partner teachers will start preparing for the school year this week with a weeklong training workshop to be held on campus.

The NSF awarded a five-year, $2.7 million Graduate Teaching Fellows in K-12 Education (GK-12) grant to Northwestern's Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA). The University's new GK-12 program is called "Reach for the Stars: Computational Models for Teaching and Learning in Physics, Astronomy and Computer Science."

"Our fellows will serve as role models to the students, which will help increase interest in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math and encourage more young people to pursue STEM fields in college," said SESP faculty member Kemi Jona, director of Northwestern's Office of STEM Education Partnerships and co-principal investigator for the project.

Northwestern, which is committed to supporting and improving science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in K-12 schools, will contribute approximately $1 million over 10 years to Reach for the Stars. Also, when the NSF grant ends in five years (unless it is renewed), The Graduate School will support the program with three fellowships per year, fulfilling the NSF's goal for long-term effects on STEM graduate education.

The NSF GK-12 grant supports up to nine graduate students per year for five years from Northwestern's STEM doctoral programs. The goal of Reach for the Stars is to train graduate students in communicating their complex research to people of all ages and to bring computational thinking into the K-12 classroom.

"The idea is to couple a fellow and a teacher with each pair becoming a critical ingredient for making a successful program," said Vicky Kalogera, professor of physics and astronomy, co-director of CIERA and principal investigator on the Reach for the Stars project. "Fellows and teachers will work closely all school year to develop lesson plans for the classroom that integrate computational thinking and scientific inquiry-based learning."

Each fellow will spend an average of 10 to 15 hours per week at his or her school. Guided by the fellows, students will learn how to draft questions and search for answers and how to use online computational research tools while working on various projects. In addition to teaching, fellows will meet regularly with teachers to compare best practices and develop curricula that introduce students to the research process.

Graduate students must apply to be part of the program. Students selected as fellows can participate for one or two years and are required to enroll in a yearlong class taught by Jona that focuses on effective methods for teaching science.

Teachers also must apply for the program, which includes a stipend from NSF. Teachers are chosen, in part, for their commitment to improving their STEM education skills and knowledge base and increasing their students' exposure to real scientific research.

For the upcoming school year, fellows have been placed at Muchin College Prep (Chicago); Evanston Township High School (Evanston); Old Orchard Junior High School, Niles North High School and Niles West High School (all in Skokie); and Maine East High School (Park Ridge).

Darren Gergle, assistant professor of communication studies, also is a co-principal investigator along with Jona. Gergle replaces Justine Cassell, who was co-principal investigator on the original grant proposal. (Cassell left Northwestern this summer to take a faculty position at Carnegie Mellon University.)

While K-12 students will profit from having a STEM expert in the classroom, Kalogera emphasizes that the primary goal of the program is to enhance the skills of the graduate fellow. All fellows will benefit, she said, regardless of their career goals.

"This wonderful opportunity will greatly advance the teaching and communication skills of each fellow and naturally train them in communicating their research work to non-experts," Kalogera said. "We are excited to be working with the schools and connecting students to graduate students and their exciting scientific research."

The GK-12 grant program is one of three main NSF programs for graduate student training and education. For more information, visit and

By Megan Fellman
Last Modified: 3/7/17