Q: Please tell us about yourself and the path that led you to The Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative (AMSTI).
Ricks: My background includes serving for 20 years as middle and high school science teacher and technology coordinator. I have also served in various capacities as a school and system administrator and taught courses as an adjunct instructor at the community college level. After being selected as the Alabama State Teacher of the Year and receiving the Presidential Award in Science, the State Superintendent of Education for Alabama asked me to oversee the development of a statewide STEM initiative that would allow Alabama’s students to compete in a global economy. In 2000 I was hired by the Alabama State Department of Education and began development of AMSTI. Since AMSTI’s inception, the initiative has grown to become the largest and most comprehensive math and science initiative in the world.
Q: AMSTI: Why was it created and what are its goals? In addition, what programs and services do you offer?
Ricks: In 1999, the Alabama State Superintendent of Education, Alabama Math, Science, and Technology and Engineering Coalition (AMSTEC), and Alabama State Department of Education concluded that for Alabama’s students to become competitive in a global economy, a major statewide math and science initiative was needed to help students become college and career ready. As a result, the Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative (AMSTI) was created to prepare students in Grades Kindergarten through 12 in math and science for success in the workforce and higher education.
The initiative invites schools to become AMSTI Schools by sending all of the math and science teachers and administrators to AMSTI training. Teachers in these schools attend two-week long Summer Institutes for two summers in a row. There they receive grade and subject specific professional development that is highly applicable to their own classrooms. AMSTI provides AMSTI School teachers with essentially all of the equipment, supplies, and resources needed to effectively engage students with hands-on, inquiry-based, problem-solving learning. Examples of equipment provided include labware, DNA replicators, nuclear scalars, chemicals, electrophoresis apparatus, plants with growth containers, and many other items needed to help students accomplish the standards for their grade. Math and science specialists from AMSTI regularly visit the classrooms during the school year where they serve as mentors, helping teachers implement what was learned during the summer. Such support is vital for teachers to become comfortable and skilled at inquiry-based, hands-on learning. AMSTI services, including Summer Institutes, materials and equipment, and in-school mentoring, is provided to schools at no cost to the teacher, school, or school district.
AMSTI was designed to provide equity and adequacy in science and math education across the state. Through AMSTI, even students in the most economically challenged schools can have access to well-trained teachers and the equipment and materials needed to effectively learn math and science. In addition, the teachers are mentored to help them continue to improve their instructional skills. AMSTI helps level the playing field, while raising the learning bar for all students, regardless of their location or socioeconomic status.
Q: In your opinion, what are the 3 main challenges your students face in terms of pursuing their STEM Education?
Ricks: The main challenges students face in STEM education is having access to teachers who are adequately prepared to teach them, having access to the necessary equipment and materials needed for high level learning of math and science, and being able to relate what they are learning to real life applications.
Q: How can we best assist STEM teachers in their teaching endeavors?
Ricks: Teachers need to clearly understand the standards they are to teach, have a strong content knowledge of the subject, know how to engage students and scaffold their learning with age and grade appropriate activities, and revise instruction based on formative assessment so students move to higher levels of learning. AMSTI was created to provide the training and support to teachers so they might meet these teaching needs. At Summer Institutes teachers are instructed in specific content and activities that address the standards for their subject and grade. Training includes how to formatively assess students and use this information to alter future instruction so as to best meet the needs of students. The research based activities provided are focused on state standards, are age and grade appropriate and help make an application connection to everyday life. Once trained, teachers need easy access to the materials and equipment needed to provide their students with inquiry-based, learning that promotes problem solving. This is provided by AMSTI at no cost to the teacher. In addition, teachers need support and mentoring as they learn to use new teaching methods. This is accomplished by having full time AMSTI specialists that visit teachers in their classrooms to help coach and mentor them as they improve their instructional skills.
Q: In your estimation, how can we improve the STEM participation of all students in Alabama, particularly those belonging to historically STEM underrepresented groups?
Ricks: The best way to increase STEM participation of students, particularly those belonging to historically STEM underrepresented groups is to provide them with a strong math and science foundation that they see as enjoyable, relevant, and connected to everyday life. When students are able to use their natural curiosity to be engaged in learning that encourages them to explore, investigate and make sense of what is being studied they are much more likely to gain an appreciation and love of STEM. Helping students experience early success and enjoy STEM subjects is critical to them eventually choose STEM careers. Students will almost never voluntarily participate in higher-level courses or consider careers in subjects that they hate, even if they are able to master the content. How content is taught is equally as important as what is taught.
AMSTI was designed to help teachers, regardless of the location or economic level of their school, provide a strong math and science foundation for all students, beginning in Kindergarten and running through Grade 12. Students are engaged using the 5E+IA learning model.