Sleeping To Improve STEM Ed

A new multidisciplinary project from the University of Arizona will encourage elementary students to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) by involving them in research involving their own sleep patterns.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, two researchers have instigated the "Sleep Education Program To Improve STEM Education in Elementary School," otherwise known as the "Z-Factor." Along the way, the project will address a real-world issue, sleep insufficiency, and its health consequences. Mobile devices will allow 500-plus fourth- and fifth-graders in the Catalina Foothills School District to track sleep patterns at home. The data collected will be routed to MySleep, an online service that will provide data analytics capabilities as well as real-time feedback and options for communications with teachers and parents.

"We believed it important to target students earlier in their educational experiences before their STEM interests and sleep habits decline," said Michelle Perfect, an associate professor in the College of Education's Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies. "The majority of proposals focus on middle school, high school or college, but we are focusing on elementary school students, which is the point before they develop worsening sleep habits and before they lose interest in STEM."

Perfect is working with Janet Roveda, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, along with numerous other partners: the university's College of Nursing, its Arizona Respiratory Center, the Medical School Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard University and the Southern Arizona Research, Science and Engineering Foundation.

Teachers and families will also play roles. The educators will receive professional development to support instructional practices that align with the Next Generation Science Standards. In class the students will use sleep science lessons the researchers are developing in conjunction with the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study. That curriculum could eventually be used in other schools as part of science education.

Outreach to district families will emphasize parental involvement in the children's learning. "Many science projects do not help parents understand what is happening, preventing disconnections between the school and home, and they don't necessarily teach children how to refine a process," explained Perfect. "The parents are not just checking off a box of homework completion. They are co-investigators. They are actively involved in their child's school and their learning."

Added Mary Jo Conery, associate superintendent of the school district, "We are looking forward to this extraordinary collaborative effort that addresses an important health issue that is personally relevant to our students' lives."

The researchers said the students would also be able to participate in field trips, webinars and visits with STEM professionals. "Students need role models. They need to know that there are individuals with disabilities, with minority backgrounds, who are English-language learners — and that they are all in STEM," Perfect noted.

A year after the program tracking ends, the team will continue its research by investigating whether the participants retain an interest in STEM.

The research is being underwritten by a $1.2 million grant from NSF's Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST), which focuses on ways to instill STEM interest.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @schaffhauser.