A hundred teachers squealed and ducked as Eddie Goldstein pulled a trigger and showered them with a thousand ping pong balls.

“Well, I didn’t want to spray them with water,” said Goldstein, director of curriculum and large group programs at the National Space Science & Technology Institute.

Goldstein was the keynote speaker at UCCS’ STEM Days of Summer, an event held June 4-5 that provided best practices, new techniques, networking and fun for science, technology, engineering and math teachers.

Goldstein draws upon a background as a professional magician, actor and science educator to create entertaining presentations so that teachers can learn new tools for spreading the joy of science.

At his keynote demonstration June 5 in UCCS’ Centennial Hall auditorium, Goldstein showcased his presentation about watersheds.

To understand the concept of a watershed, “I wanted to have the folks in the audience be a part of that watershed,” he said. “I divided the group into three different watersheds and sprayed a thousand ping pong balls into the air.”

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To simulate how a watershed works, the teachers caught the balls and passed them down.

“We measured how many ping pong balls fell on each area and discussed why some watersheds get more rain than others,” Goldstein said.

The presentation was a journey through the cycle in which water starts in clouds, falls to earth as rain, ultimately evaporates and goes back into clouds. Goldstein finished by creating a giant cloud using water and liquid nitrogen, which cools water below its dew point.

Most teachers can’t shoot off 1,000 ping pong balls in their classrooms, but later in the day, Goldstein’s partner Dimitri Klebe, founder and president of the National Space Science & Technology Institute, demonstrated how to design and construct water filtration systems, a project they could take back to their schools. The institute is a Colorado Springs-based nonprofit that develops innovative science education programs in the Pikes Peak region.

“The overall message was that using theatrical techniques, you can present things to students that are highly educational and highly entertaining at the same time,” Goldstein said.

STEM TEACHER SHORTAGE

All of the school districts in the Pikes Peak region have shortages of STEM teachers, said Dr. Robert Block, associate dean of the UCCS College of Business. It’s tough to get a pipeline going to produce STEM teachers because students know they can get more lucrative jobs in industry.

A program called UCCSTeach, a collaboration between the College of Education and the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, aims to remedy that.

The program offers undergraduates the opportunity to earn both a bachelor’s degree in mathematics or science and a secondary teaching license in four years. It also provides post-baccalaureate students with an undergraduate STEM-related degree a chance to seek teacher licensure.

“It is the only program in Colorado that focuses on producing good STEM teachers,” Block said. “We’ve partnered with the National Science Foundation, which provides grant funding for STEM majors to become STEM teachers. They get plenty of teacher training and can go teach in high-needs districts. We’re starting the second year of awarding scholarships, and we’ve doubled the number this year.”

The university presented a summer intensive last year to provide training for 10 STEM teachers, said Patrick McGuire, associate professor in the College of Education and co-director of UCCSTeach.

“It was very successful, and there was feedback that you need to do this again,” McGuire said.

This year, sponsorship by the Rocky Mountain chapter of the Armed Services Communications & Electronics Association enabled the university to scale up the program and create the inaugural STEM Days event.

Besides immersing themselves in the water cycle during Goldstein’s entertaining presentation, the STEM teachers attended breakout sessions led by teachers and UCCS faculty members.

They learned about a virtual reality platform that allows students to engage in activities that can’t be done in a classroom, makerspace tools, STEM projects on a shoestring, planning and organization, team teaching strategies, grant writing, gamification, and converging STEM and career and technical education pathways. McGuire said the plan is to do STEM Days every year.

“We had really great highlighted speakers, but also events where teachers could network,” Block said. “We think it’s very important for teachers to talk to other teachers about how they do this.”

TEACHER PREP

Many of the jobs of the future will depend on STEM, McGuire said. “If teachers are not trained, they can’t be filled.”

But it isn’t just training teachers that’s needed; STEM teachers also need to be retained.

“A lot of STEM teachers tend to leave within the first five years,” he said.

Many school districts offer support services, such as mentors for STEM teachers during their first two or three years, and require continuing education. That’s where universities come in, McGuire said.

“Over the last few years, several faculty who work in STEM teacher preparation have done some outreach, often with individual teachers,” he said. “Part of our goal [for STEM Days] was to bring people together. There’s nothing else like this around town. We thought this was a good strategic decision for the school to do.”

The UCCSTeach program focuses on the secondary level, but the elementary-level program also includes a lot of classes that focus on STEM, McGuire said.

“Even at the elementary level, I think our university is doing a good job of preparing elementary teachers to teach science, technology and math,” he said. “We also have an alternative licensure program that’s basically for people who are career changers, for instance, engineers working in the business field, or former military who come back and decide they want to become a teacher. That’s a slightly different model, and we’ll have a handful of students each year that get certification in STEM as well.”

Local school districts may see Goldstein popping up more frequently as a result of his appearance at STEM Days.

As part of the Mobile Earth and Space Observatory project through the National Space Science & Technology Institute, Goldstein, Klebe and others travel around the state presenting at assemblies and in classes, putting together science centers and hosting sun- and star-gazing parties.

They bring in a “science center on wheels,” a vehicle with a top that retracts to reveal research-grade telescopes and scientific instrumentation.

The MESO vehicle put in an appearance at the STEM event. It was open at lunchtime for solar viewing, and even though cloudy weather put a damper on a planned star party, “the responses from the teachers were overwhelming,” Goldstein said. “We got requests to come to quite a number of school systems.”