Advancing Teacher Leadership by Uniting STEM Communities

By: Amy Green, Ph.D., Program Coordinator, M.Ed. STEM Teacher Leadership, UMD at USG; Jonathan Rivera, Elementary STEM Specialist, MCPS; Laurel Czajkowski, 4th Grade Teacher, MCPS; and Gianna Gianna Morales, 4th Grade Teacher, MCPS and Student in UMD’s M.Ed. STEM Teacher Leadership program

Today’s schools are working hard to prepare students to understand and respond to the ever-evolving, increasingly complex challenges of the 21st century. Transdisciplinary STEM education can be a powerful way to support students with the development of skills necessary to succeed in the modern and future workforce. Students need (and want!) school learning experiences that are both meaningful and relevant to their lives. Transdisciplinary STEM allows us to soften the traditional boundaries between school subjects such that the core ideas and practices of multiple disciplines come together in the service of real-world problem-solving. 

A resident of the new Biomedical Sciences and Engineering (BSE) Education Facility, UMCP’s STEM Teacher Leadership M.Ed. at the Universities at Shady Grove (USG) campus is an innovative program designed to prepare teachers to advance K-8 STEM education. This semester, teachers in the program are engaging with stakeholders in a variety of STEM fields through the program’s “Uniting STEM Communities” series, which allows them to explore community resources for sparking their students’ interest in STEM through life-relevant and real-world learning experiences. 

Liza Manfred, the Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives with KID Museum, facilitated a session on design-based learning and makerspaces. Based in Bethesda, KID Museum is an experiential museum and educational makerspace that offers a variety of programs for families, students, and teachers.  Liza engaged the teachers in one of KID museum’s project-based lessons. Teams of teachers were given design challenges to solve using the Mind of a Maker framework and presented their prototypes to the class. Liza, course instructor, Amy Green, and the teachers then discussed ways the BSE could be incorporated into design challenges. Joyce Fuhrmann, USG’s Director of BSE Operation and STEMM Initiatives, explained that “this is exactly the type of education and engagement the BSE was built for. KID Museum is an important part of our pathway work at USG and it’s very powerful to see how these teacher leaders integrated sustainability concepts in the BSE, STEM teaching and learning from KID Museum, and their own experience as educators to develop lessons for future students.” The collaboration also helps support KID museum’s mission for advancing design-based learning.  Liza shares, “We are excited about the opportunity to partner with USG and connect with the UMCP STEM teacher leaders. Delivering student programs on campus and collaborating directly with their teachers is core to our mission. Through discussions, brainstorming, and partnering with classroom teachers who work with students every day, we can create and deliver meaningful programs for students.” 

The Uniting STEM Communities series also connected the UMD STEM Teacher leaders with the Port of Baltimore to learn more about how sediment that is dredged from the Chesapeake Bay to maintain shipping channels is being used to restore Poplar Island from the effects of weather, erosion, and subsidence. The restoration of this island has resulted in new wetland habitat for a variety of local species, including the Maryland state reptile, the diamondback terrapin. Laura Baker from the Port of Baltimore environmental education team visited the STEM Teacher program accompanied by three terrapin ‘ambassadors.’ She explained that a research partnership between the Maryland Port Administration, Ohio University, the National Aquarium, and several local education agencies allows for hatchling terrapins to be collected from Poplar Island and provided to Maryland schools.  Students contribute to authentic scientific research by collecting growth data, observing behaviors, learning animal care techniques, and researching the natural history of the species before the terrapins are released back into their natural habitat at the end of the school year. 

Poplar is a great authentic example of how the environment and the economy are intertwined in this mutually beneficial and unique restoration project.  Laura explains, the “Terrapin Education and Research Partnership (TERP) program is the longest running K-12 turtle raise-and-release program in the world and would not be possible without strong support from teachers in the community.”  From a STEM teaching perspective, the Poplar Island and TERP project are powerful examples of anchor phenomena through which academic learning objectives may be met. Laurel Czajkowski, a 4th grade teacher in MCPS explains, “It was truly insightful to learn about restoration efforts currently taking place here in Maryland and the positive impact these efforts have on native species. Students of all ages would undoubtedly enjoy learning science through the hands-on experience of raising terrapins while contributing to scientific research projects.” Gianna Morales, a 4th grade teacher, agrees, explaining, “The TERP program is an example of what authentic learning experiences can look like for students. Students are given the opportunity to inform local environmental initiatives efforts in the classroom. They become active agents in restoration and research efforts. I’m sure this program is inspiring future environmental scientists and biologists.”

The Uniting STEM Communities series engaged several other STEM partners this semester. Representatives from the Maryland Department of Education’s (MSDE) STEM and Computer Science office and the Maryland Center for Computing Education met with the teachers to introduce and facilitate a training on the newly annotated elementary computer science standards. Cindy Hasslebring from the NASA Office of STEM Engagement will also join to share the new NASA CONNECTS platform, which connects educators to NASA content, resources, and opportunities.  Guests also include academic program specialists from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, a STEM Education program evaluator from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and a UMD researcher who is an expert in developing online educational videos will also share their expertise and resources with the teachers. 

Connecting teachers with community STEM leaders is just one way that the M.Ed. STEM Teacher Leadership program supports the next generation of STEM learners. As teacher leader Gianna Morales shared, “This program has been invaluable to the learning experiences I’ve facilitated in the classroom for my fourth graders. I’ve often left my courses feeling even more inspired and encouraged to integrate more and more applied STEM disciplines into not just my students’ projects, but to passionately encourage other educators to do the same. Transdisciplinary learning experiences are more accessible than many educators realize. Plus, STEM learning experiences are a much-needed confidence booster for our students as well as for the educators who bring them to life in the classroom.”

UMD is currently accepting applications for the next cohort of STEM teacher leaders to begin the program this fall. For more information, including details about $1,000 in scholarship credits for teachers who are accepted into the program, contact Amy Green at or visit

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