Elementary school students and their teachers will benefit from a recent gift of $150,000 given to Cal Poly’s Center for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Education.

The $150,000 gift was given in association with the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation. The “learn by doing” philosophy that is such an integral part of Cal Poly is one of the things the gift will allow faculty to take to elementary schools, said Bob Cichowski, director of the CESaME program.

“Mr. Bechtel’s generous gift will enable our faculty to work closely with the local schools to bring new opportunities for teachers and students to learn about science and engineering in the world and our everyday lives,” Cichowski said.

The new project concentrates on integrating science, technology, engineering, mathematics and literacy into the existing elementary curricula. Students who are under-represented in careers in these fields and who are English learners are the targets of the project. Silvia Liddicoat, co-director of the project and an electrical engineering lecturer, said this work is extremely important to her.

“These students are an untapped resource that can help our school fill the gap between the number of graduates and the number of job openings,” Liddicoat said. “There is a need to increase the pipeline of students going into science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers because there is a shortage in this country- (The project is going to) offer them new ways of looking at what their career possibilities are.”

The center started in 2004 at the request of President Warren Baker. Faculty members from the science, mathematics, education, liberal arts and agriculture departments are working together with elementary school teachers in developing novel material.

“It intends to be a catalyst to improve education in mathematics and science in K-12 schools,” Liddicoat said.

Currently, three schools in the Santa Maria-Bonita School District are the only ones where the project is being carried out. Liddicoat anticipates the program spreading to other districts in California and then the nation. But, for now she and Shirley Magnusson, the other co-director, are meeting with five teachers and their three principals.

“The principals at the three schools are very supportive of this particular project,” Liddicoat said.

They will be spending two weeks in July testing the new curricula and working with hands-on learning.

“We’re losing ground in developing and retaining engineers,” Liddicoat said. One aim of the project is to get young students interested in math and science so they will pursue careers in engineering. Interim provost Bob Detweiler agreed that age is critical in directing students to potential career paths.

“The S.D. Bechtel gift is very useful specifically for our local schools,” Detweiler said. “This is an opportunity to bring engineering directly into the classroom. That’s the age when kids are largely deciding whether they’re gong to be interested in science and math.”

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