Newswise — COLUMBUS, Ga – Columbus State University and the Muscogee County School District are serious about getting students interested in STEM and proving it in a big way -- with a district-wide contract that will give every elementary student in every school a chance to interact annually with the university’s Coca-Cola Space Science Center.

The center already hosts all district sixth-graders every year. Adding students from kindergarten through fifth grade will mean that more than 17,000 district children a year will learn from a staff that figuratively and literally screams, “I love science!”

National experts say serving that many school children with the single goal of igniting kids’ interest in math and science may become a national model in STEM education.

"This is a very impressive partnership you have formed with the local school district,” said Jonah Cohen, chair of the National Education Outreach Network. “In fact, it may be one of the most extensive science center-school partnerships for outreach in the country.”

The Coca-Cola Space Science Center, a CSU academic enrichment center and space museum located on CSU’s downtown RiverPark campus, signed the contract with the Muscogee County School District as a cost-effective means of expanding STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) learning, an educational priority set by the Obama administration in 2010.

“The Muscogee County School District is thrilled to be partnering with CSU and the Coca-Cola Space Science Center to provide education in STEM that is critical to the success of our community and the country,” said David Lewis, superintendent of education for the Muscogee County School District. “The resources available at the science center are unlike any in the region, and we are confident that they will reignite a curiosity about science that students are losing at an early age.”

U.S. News & World Report says that by the eighth grade, almost 50 percent of students have lost interest in science.

“We hope to turn this trend around in our local school district by immersing students in the gateway sciences of astronomy and space exploration,” said Shawn Cruzen, director for CSU’s Coca-Cola Space Science Center. “We believe that making a difference in these early years will lead to more students pursuing science in college, a larger and better-trained technological workforce, and a community with a better understanding and appreciation of science.”

The center already has been demonstrating its impact in the district for 18 years through its sixth-grade curriculum and teacher exchange program.

“This contract has given us the rare privilege to work with students for seven straight years,” Cruzen said. “We have a unique opportunity to build on experiences year after year, reinforcing lessons but never repeating them.”

With a program that engages students over multiple years, the center can reinforce learning connections that frequently disintegrate when students leave the classroom.

“Science learning for youth is often separate and disconnected,” said Kelly Riedinger, director of research and evaluation for David Heil & Associates, Inc., an Oregon firm that specializes in the development of science-based educational programs, products and services. “What students learn in school is rarely connected to everyday life. The collaboration between the Coca-Cola Space Science Center and local schools likely will result in long-term outcomes for participating students, including gains in science understanding, improved attitudes and beliefs toward STEM content, and increased interest in pursuing STEM careers.”

The field of science education is lacking longitudinal studies on outcomes for youth interested in STEM, she said. The center plans to employ experts from CSU’s College of Education and Health Professions to narrow this research gap and measure the effects of its new partnership.

“It is evident that this partnership is well-positioned to make an impact, both with students and in the science education research community,” Riedinger said.

“I am personally excited to see a community taking this step to ignite kids' interest in math and science,” Cohen said. “I can assure you that this arrangement will be tracked by centers around the country, because you have a golden opportunity for long-term evaluation and assessment that few centers will ever have."

In addition to addressing research needs, the center will work to modify lessons based on feedback from teachers and principals.

Mary Johnson, assistant director for CSU's space science center, said her staff's ability to adapt to diverse needs is a strength. Lessons will not only satisfy state standards but also will address areas identified by schools.

Despite growth in its programs, the space science center continues to offer something different for every grade. Educators visit students in their own schools in kindergarten through the third grade. Students in fourth through sixth grades visit the center, where they find lessons customized just for them.

Growth for CSU’s Coca-Cola Space Science Center is only limited by the space between its brick walls. Johnson said the center is hoping to raise money for a physical expansion of the building to display NASA artifacts and handle even more students with interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

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