Regina Toolin is hoping that good things come in threes.
An Associate Professor in UVM’s College of Education and Social Services (CESS), the former science teacher from New York City is passionate about promoting quality STEM education. After two successful National Science Foundation (NSF) Robert Noyce Scholarship Program grants, Dr. Toolin just submitted her third, a $1.2 million, 5-year grant primarily designed to recruit, educate, and support talented science, technology, engineering, and mathematics majors and professionals to become mathematics, science and computer science teachers (grades 7-12).
UVM’s current Noyce Scholarship Program awards $18,700 a year to qualified graduate students in the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) in Secondary Education Program for tuition support, with additional funding to attend STEM education conferences and other professional learning experiences. The new grant, if funded, will award scholarships to computer science majors and professionals in addition to science and mathematics majors and professionals.
“What I have found in working with the MAT program for 14 years is that the students that enroll in our program are truly committed to the teaching profession,” Toolin says. “They’ve either been out in the world engaged in a variety of different careers, or recently started a career and thought, you know, all along I really wanted to be a teacher.”
Toolin credits frequent collaborator Rory Waterman, Professor of Chemistry and Associate Dean of UVM’s College of Arts and Sciences (and Co-Principal Investigator of the Noyce grant) for encouraging her to apply with him in 2009, helping to put the scholarship program into motion, and keeping the momentum going for over a decade. Toolin also lauds the contributions of Carmen Petrick Smith, Associate Professor of Mathematics Education, for part of the second grant submission in 2015.
An ongoing project Toolin feels particularly proud of is the Champlain Research Experience for Secondary Teachers (CREST) program. CREST is made possible through a federally funded grant received by the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation (VSAC) from the Department of Education’s Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Program (GEAR UP). By serving certified teachers in high-needs schools, the program seeks to increase the number of first-generation students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education.
Every year during the last week of June, about 18-20 participating CREST teachers from across Vermont board UVM’s research vessel, the Melosira. The teachers go out on Lake Champlain alongside UVM scientists and graduate students to conduct research on factors contributing to the health of the Lake Champlain Basin. The experience provides relevant place-based and project-based science, armed with timely research skills and information to pass on to their own students, allowing their STEM teaching to be more authentic and better aligned with what scientists do in the real world.
Implemented through UVM for the past six years, CREST is a cross-disciplinary project including Professor Jason Stockwell, Director of the Rubenstein Ecosystem Science Laboratory; Michael Blouin, Lecturer in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources; Ashley Eaton, Watershed and Lake Education Coordinator; Allison Hrycik, a doctoral student in biology whose research focuses on Lake Champlain; and two high school teachers (and former CREST participants), Jensen Welch and Gabe Grant from BFA-St. Albans School. This past summer, Julia Perdrial, Associate Professor of Geology, also joined the CREST team to lend her expertise in teaching about critical zone research.
“CREST is a program that receives high accolades from teacher participants. It speaks for itself that we continue to get funded every year because the evaluations are so strong and so positive,” Toolin says. “In CREST, we model best practices of teaching, and treat teachers like the professionals that they are. We model peer-to-peer interactions and community-building—beautiful networks are established that teachers carry on after they leave us. To be honest, CREST is probably the highlight of my career. I just love working in this program, I love thinking about it, and planning for it each year, and most especially, working with the CREST staff and teachers.”
Part of the requirements for CREST teachers is to develop a project that they implement back in their school during the academic year, which Toolin has had the pleasure of witnessing first-hand. “Involving students in real research results in increased engagement, learning and excitement,” says Toolin. “That’s exactly what I want to see happening in all science classrooms across Vermont. It’s great to see students out in streams, getting wet, having fun, but also learning at the same time.”
Toolin is also a collaborator on a new multi-PI, $6 million, 4-year NSF grant, Leveraging Intelligent Informatics and Smart Data for Improved Understanding of Northern Forest Ecosystem Resiliency (INSPIRES), funded on August 1, 2019. This project will be developed in collaboration with scientists and science educators from the University of New Hampshire and the University of Maine.
Similar to CREST, the new INSPIRES project will include a professional development component for educators teaching grades 7-12, this time focused on the northern forests of New England and how they’ve been able to withstand changes in climate and other impacts, primarily human.
“A significant part of INSPIRES is looking at big data collected by sensors gathering information throughout the northern forests,” explains Toolin. “With access to this data and other scientific findings from the project, we hope to engage teachers in the research process while helping them to make sense of the northern forest data. Ultimately, the goal is to teach students in grades 7-12, as is appropriate for them cognitively and developmentally, about big data and the data collection and analysis process. Getting students in the community more involved in big data and understanding what big data is in science is one of the fundamental pillars of INSPIRES.”
Toolin will be collaborating with Aaron Weiskittel, PI, University of Maine, Tony D’Mato, Co-PI, University of Vermont, and Scott Ollinger, Co-PI, University of New Hampshire. She is excited about both the incredible science, research, and learning opportunities being opened up for middle and high school teachers and students as well as the community-building across the three universities.
“My job is what I make it, and that’s one of the wonderful things about being an academic,” Toolin says. “You get to create the projects you engage in, and most of the time, these projects happen with other great thinkers and scientists. It’s the best of all worlds. I have the opportunity to work with K-12 teachers and think about how to make STEM teaching more inspirational and engaging for teachers and students. I also have the opportunity to continually learn about and be at the forefront of great science by collaborating with colleagues here at UVM and other universities. That’s what drives me and makes me excited about my work.”