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Nyachwaya talks importance of STEM integration

James Nyachwaya is a science education doctoral student in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Minnesota. Currently, Mr. Nyachwaya serves as a Graduate Research Assistant with the STEM Education Center and is a Teaching Assistant for a pre-service teaching course at the University of Minnesota. His work with the STEM Education Center focuses largely on working with pre-service teachers, to mentor them and help them integrate STEM into their teaching. Mr. Nyachwaya is projected to finish his Ph.D. in science education in April 2012.

Nyachwaya's interest in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics dates back to his own high school experience. He experienced firsthand the overlap of the STEM disciplines. In college he majored in chemistry and minored in mathematics. He continued his education by earning a masters degree in chemistry. He saw the importance of integrating STEM when students in his chemistry class started to "tune off" when they encountered math. His experience in these fields as both a student and educator has prompted his desire to work in STEM education, specifically chemistry education. He has a desire to see more integration in the teaching of the various STEM disciplines.

"Previously, many teachers (in my experience) thought that the best way to teach of the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics was as unique silos", says Nyachwaya. In this view, each subject was taught as completely independent of other subjects. Nyachwaya's experience, however, made him question the efficacy of this approach. He gave the example of stoichiometry in chemistry, and algebra in physics, which draw on students' math skills. For example, students ought to realize that what they learn in algebra or pre-calculus is useful in physics. In Mr. Nyachwaya's observations, each of the STEM disciplines had commonalities with one another. When STEM components are utilized as related instead of separate entities, the disciplines complement each other to strengthen and build upon one another to improve students' understanding. Meaningful integration of STEM shows that the disciplines involved are not mutually exclusive subjects, but overlapping, supporting academic areas.
Nyachwaya's dissertation focuses on college students' conceptual understanding of the particulate nature of matter, a core concept in chemistry. The study participants are students enrolled in a college freshman chemistry class. Most of the students enrolled in the course are pursuing a STEM-related career. Mr. Nyachwaya uses test items that look at two key areas: the student's ability to balance chemical equations, and the student's ability to represent and explain the chemistry represented by the equations. He has interviewed a sample of 10 students to capture their conceptual understanding of the chemistry concepts that are entailed in the three equations of chemical reactions that he uses. The interviews have shown that while students show a certain level of understanding, they have misconceptions as well.

The next step for Nyachwaya's dissertation is to write the cases, followed by data analysis. His next level of research will be to track growth of students' understanding of the particulate nature of matter over the course of a semester. He also wishes to study pre-service teachers' pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) of the particulate nature of matter. Nyachawaya has utilized what he learned through his education and his teaching experience to identify some helpful methods of supporting STEM integration. Mr. Nyachwaya identifies models as a useful mechanism for addressing or correcting misconceptions in science. Computer simulations are a useful tool in teaching abstract concepts, and especially demonstrating chemical processes. Completion of homework online with immediate feedback can be used as a medium to deliver chemistry content. The latter two show how technology can be used as a medium through which the teaching and learning of chemistry and other sciences can be enhanced.

As a student teachers' supervisor, Nyachwaya seeks to help pre-service teachers to integrate various STEM concepts to enrich their students' understanding by showing that the various ideas that they see in STEM courses are related, and that they do complement each other. In his view, meaningful STEM integration means that for example we don't teach algebra in a physics class at the expense of the physics, but rather use concepts and ideas learned in an algebra class to teach physics. In the past, he has worked with pre-service teachers in the secondary science methods class on how to use engineering to teach concepts such as energy and the nature of science, by engaging the students in building and testing table- top wind turbines, and in the "penguins" activity.

Following completion of his Ph.D., Mr. Nyachwaya intends to work in academia. He would like to be an instructor and a researcher in a teacher education program or chemistry department. He hopes to continue to work with high school and college students, pre-service and in-service teachers, and both further and broaden his research in chemistry education.

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