SURF education program receives $25,000 grant

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This summer, 55 educators will come together at the Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead to enhance STEM education in the state of South Dakota, thanks to a $25,000 grant from the John T. Vucurevich Foundation.

“We will be doing science learning together, all across the state, helping teachers build their confidence and create great science learning experiences in their classrooms,” said Nicol Reiner, director of the Education and Outreach (E&O) team at Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF).

Reiner said the E&O team’s week-long professional development program for K-12 educators is in partnership with Black Hills State University. For Reiner’s team, this year focuses on removing barriers that may hinder educators from participating in professional development.

E&O’s program is free to attend, but attendees often incur out-of-pocket expenses, such as transportation, lodging and child care. And some educators have personal responsibilities that hinder them from traveling across the state to attend the program at BHSU. But this year, with the support of key partners, the E&O team is dismantling those barriers.

In 2021, the E&O team received a $25,000 grant from the John T. Vucurevich Foundation to provide stipends and materials for every educator in attendance.

“We are deeply grateful for the support and partnership the John T. Vucurevich Foundation has offered to the SURF Foundation by supporting this professional development series,” said Staci Miller, director of the SURF Foundation. “Each year, the professional development offered by the E&O team paves the way for future generations of scientists and engineers.”

In addition to stipends and materials, educators have the choice to join virtually or attend in-person.

“This is really an accessibility issue,” Reiner said. “Some teachers are comfortable being face to face with our COVID-19 safety protocols. Some teachers are more comfortable staying home. And not everyone can travel across the state for a weeklong workshop. Providing a virtual component is very important to us.”

In addition to providing the program’s location and lodging to educators, BHSU is offering graduate credits at a significantly reduced rate upon completion of the program.

“We are always looking to remove barriers to professional development,” Reiner said. “Whether that be providing a virtual component for those who cannot attend in person, providing lodging for in-person attendees, or providing a stipend for educators — we want to make sure educators are getting the continuing support they need.”

The professional development will focus on South Dakota’s science standards, which emphasize three-dimensional learning. Three-dimensional learning shifts science education from rote memorization to thinking like a scientist, investigating scientific concepts and solving problems.

The educational concepts directly leverage the science taking place at SURF. Educators can use the real phenomena and unsolved questions being explored underground to generate student interest, allowing student questions to drive the learning, as they master the science standards.

“I saw this opportunity and I jumped on it. I had some ‘Aha!’ moments as I was going through that professional development,” said Darin Newton, a middle school science instructor in Belle Fourche, who now helps facilitate E&O professional development programs.

Aaron Odegaard, a seventh-grade life science and biology teacher at Stagebarn Middle School in Summerset, attended the program in 2019.

“Last summer’s program introduced the concept of 3-D learning, and this year is really starting to show us how to do it, giving us specific strategies, and building the confidence to be able to use them in the classroom,” he said.

To provide more professional development opportunities for educators, E&O is partnering with the South Dakota EPSCoR and the South Dakota Department of Education this summer.

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