Austin Peay State University (APSU)
Clarksville, TN – Dr. Philip Short has the heart of a field biologist. He loves wading through creeks or hiking trails, conducting field research. As an assistant professor at Austin Peay State University (APSU), you might expect his office to be in the Sundquist Science Complex, but it’s not.
Short works in the Claxton Building, as a member of the Eriksson College of Education.
“Since I was 5 years old, I never wanted to be anything but a biologist,” he said. “But you get to your junior year of college and you’re not sure what you want to do, or if you want to do another four or eight years of graduate school.”
Short decided he wanted to be an educator rather than a working scientist. Today, he’s fortunate enough to do both as director of the College of Education’s STEM Center, but a few years ago he started wondering about similar individuals who don’t know where their interest in science should take them.
“There are a lot of students who enroll at Austin Peay, wanting to be doctors or engineers or chemical researchers, but maybe after a few years they aren’t,” he said. “We get these people who are interested in science, they’re good at it, they just don’t quite know what they want to do.”
Last summer, Short and his department chair, Dr. Benita Bruster, discussed this issue with Dr. Lisa Sullivan, chair of the APSU Department of Chemistry, and Dr. Karen Meisch, interim dean of the College of STEM. Together, the four colleagues wrote and received a $50,000 state grant for their two colleges to train science majors to be educators while also providing educational outreach opportunities to local school children.
Thanks to the state grant, the two APSU colleges awarded 15 stipends to biology and chemistry majors to work as teaching assistants (TAs) last year. The TAs led freshmen labs on campus, but they also were required to work with younger students in grades K-12. During the spring semester, the colleges hosted local school groups at Austin Peay for STEM outreach events informally known as “Science Fridays.”
“We had 125 fifth-graders come over one Friday and learn about genetics,” Short said. “We went to the farm and looked at renewable energy, and one Friday we took students to the planetarium and looked at what makes earth a place in the universe where life exists.”
The grant-funded program allowed Austin Peay science majors to see what it’s like being a teacher, with the hope that some of them might pursue careers in this high-need field. According the U.S. Department of Education, 43 states reported a shortage in science teachers for the 2017-2018 year.
The state grant ended last year, but Austin Peay’s College of Education and College of STEM are continuing to collaborate by offering professional development workshops for science teachers in the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System.
“It just makes sense for us to work together,” Short said. “We have some expertise in pedagogy and teaching strategies, and they have a lot of expertise in content areas, new innovations, new applications of scientific findings. Putting those two things together allows us to have a richer experience that we can offer teachers for professional development and also offer students in our regional schools.”