As we race to entice, educate and graduate  more and more STEM professionals, educators look to non-traditional teaching methods to encourage students to pursue STEM careers. From informal learning environments to hands-on experiences, educators are committed to providing unique educational experiences. During the summer, teachers use their break from classroom teaching to polish their skills and learn new and improved techniques to motivate students and improve academic achievement.

spelling made easyPamela Clute faced a classroom of 55 math teachers at UC Riverside on Wednesday wearing a head-set style microphone that made her look like an aerobics teacher — an apt description for the part-time Palm Desert resident and math guru as she put her students through a rigorous workout of math teaching skills.

The morning started with a geometry lesson linking icosahedrons — which have 20 faces all the same size — to the herpes virus and soccer balls. The session ended with some hands-on computational origami, applying the Japanese art of paper folding to geometric problems.

“Origami is a branch of math — how do you fold material so that it occupies a small amount of space, but when you need it, it expands and becomes something useful,” Clute explained. “Air bags, that was all developed through origami. It looks like fun and games; it speaks to the issue of creativity.”

Helping teachers connect math to the real world in ways that will engage and motivate students is what Clute and her Mathematics Academy for Teaching Excellence, or MATE, is all about. The four-day workshop at UCR, which ran from Monday through Thursday, was particularly targeted at math teachers involved in special programs at their schools promoting science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

In recent years, STEM education has become a major focus of economic development efforts in the Coachella Valley and nationwide as one survey after another has found U.S. students falling behind in math and science literacy scores. Employers across the country have also raised concerns about a lack of qualified job applicants with STEM skills.

“The catalyst was businesses paying attention to education,” Clute said. “We are not getting the workforce we need. From that, I realized the missing component in many cases was for kids to have experiences in life that make them think. Sometimes we get a little too mechanistic in the way we teach math; we don’t connect it to other subjects; we don’t connect it to life. Those connections require strong thinking skills.”

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