Connecting the classroom to the farm improves mathematics test scores

St. Johns Schools-CMU partnership focuses on Ag-STEM

​St. Johns Public Schools Superintendent Dedrick Martin never imagined the farm fields he drives past to work each day could help solve a problem with mathematics in one of his elementary schools.

Everything started to add up when the rural Michigan district drew on Central Michigan University's legacy of educational innovation to incorporate agricultural realities into science, technology, engineering and mathematics principles. One year of improved mathematics test scores at a historically underperforming elementary school is all it took for Martin to know this one-of-a-kind partnership works.

"There are no Ag-STEM models in Michigan for us to follow, so we wanted to start slow with just one school," Martin said. "But everything went so well, now we have to speed it up as teachers have embraced the collaboration with CMU and Ag-STEM focus."

Next year, the program expands to two schools.

The partnership started with an offer from Larry Corbett, director of clinical experiences in CMU's teacher education and professional development program, to develop a student teaching relationship with St. Johns schools. Martin was interested but presented a subsequent challenge to take STEM education even further.

The result utilizes CMU faculty and student teacher candidates, St. Johns teachers, students, local farmers, and businesses to improve student mathematics performance.

"It all starts when you look at the question of how to feed a growing population with less land," he said. "We just had to apply STEM to what is around us. It is used in everything from the types of seeds that are planted to the equipment they use to plant the seeds and everything in between."

Growing peas, hatching chicks and co-teaching students

Martin and Corbett based the partnership on the National Association for Professional Development Schools' model. Corbett said CMU preservice teachers and student teachers co-taught with Gateway Elementary School teachers to incorporate Ag-STEM concepts into the curriculum.

Recent CMU graduate Caroline Whitford worked closely with first-grade teacher Amy Dow at Gateway Elementary.

"I feel so fortunate to have been able to be a preservice teacher and student teacher at Gateway with the same teacher because I walked into student teaching way more prepared than most student teachers," Whitford said. "I already knew Amy's classroom management style, the students and the daily schedule, and I was able to build on what I already knew from being in her class." 

Integrated science was Whitford's major within education.

"Our first-graders were so excited when we decided to grow peas and lettuce in our extended learning area located between both first-grade classrooms," Whitford said. "Eventually we got chicken eggs and hatched them and raised baby chicks. It was by far one of the most remarkable experiences I had as a student teacher."

Bill Leibfritz, CMU teacher education and professional development mathematics professor, worked onsite to provide Gateway teachers professional development in mathematical strategic thinking. Katie Rinke, CMU coordinator of clinical experiences, also was onsite at Gateway Elementary once a week to serve as a liaison to the district.

The active partnership is consistent with the university's involvement as a leading teacher education institution. In addition to instituting the new co-teaching model in 2016, CMU's STEM Education Scholar program helps to educate the next generation of scientists by preparing strong teachers in STEM disciplines.

"We wanted to give back, and what was key was that we developed the partnership not on what we as an institution thought, but based specifically on what the district said it needed," Corbett said, adding that CMU is pursuing similar partnerships with other school districts.

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