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Elementary ed major gains valuable insights in field experience

Angela Rosendahl '11, elementary education major.
Angela Rosendahl '11, elementary education major.
Photo by Biology Associate Professor Jill Welter.

Angela Rosendahl '11, an elementary education major in the Weekend Program, recently participated in a field study experience unique for her field: a two-month-long project researching nutrient uptake and nitrogen fixation in rivers and streams at the Heath and Marjorie Angelo Coast Range Reserve Project in northern California.

"Every living thing needs nitrogen, so you should find nitrogen of some sort in an ecosystem," Rosendahl says. "We wanted to see what nitrogen fixers were there — there are diatoms, algae, that can take nitrogen from the air. We tested to see what the rate was that they were taking it in; if we put nitrogen in the water, we could test how fast that nitrogen was going away." 

She explains that these nitrogen-fixing organisms can take nitrogen from the air and use it to grow and reproduce, unlike all other organisms that must rely on the nitrogen that is available in the surrounding soil and water. This gives nitrogen-fixers a strong competitive advantage, and they can often outgrow other species when nitrogen supplies in the water get low. The nitrogen they contain also becomes available to other organisms in the river when the diatoms are consumed by fish or insects, or once they die and decompose.

In addition to the group project at Angelo reserve, Rosendahl performed her own experiments with algae growth related to the presence of nitrogen and phosphorus. She plans to present the results of her research this spring at Science @ St. Kate's Day.

Fostering a passion for STEM

Rosendahl's involvement in the summer Angelo research project was the result of an Environmental Biology class she took with Jill Welter, assistant professor of biology, and Tony Murphy, executive director of the newly established National Center for STEM Elementary Education at St. Kate's. 

The class is part of the University's recent requirement for elementary education majors that prepares elementary teachers to engage children at an early age in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). St. Kate's three-course STEM certificate also includes chemistry and engineering coursework. 

"Angela was very interested in science and so we thought she would be a good candidate for this," Murphy says. "If we are to really transform how science is taught at the elementary level, our students and elementary teachers need to experience what it means to 'do' actual real science research with a scientist mentor."

Rosendahl's participation in the Angelo research project is part of the University’s STEM curriculum initiative and is also an example of the interdisciplinary aspect of it. Welter has been bringing St. Kate's biology students to the Angelo reserve for the past five years with the support of the National Science Foundation.  Murphy and Welter drew from other University resources to support Rosendahl's involvement in the project since she was the first elementary education major to join the project.

She says Rosendahl brought strong critical thinking skills, a well-developed sense of curiosity and keen observation to the project. "Angela understood the project; she knew what we were trying to do and the questions to address," Welter says. "She was a real asset to our team."

Welter and Murphy are excited about expanding the experience to other elementary education students. 

Lasting impacts

Rosendahl says the research project in California and the STEM courses have increased her passion for science and made her feel much more at ease with teaching it. She says she's looking forward to encouraging her students' spirit of discovery. 

"I came out of there way more comfortable with the knowledge that I had and way more excited to teach kids," Rosendahl says. "My excitement for science is definitely going to impact my students."

Rosendahl is further developing her skills for STEM instruction at Northrop Urban Environmental School in Minneapolis. As part of the University’s EcoSTARS professional development program for teachers and future teachers, she is participating in the pre-student teaching training in a second-grade class.

She also is working as a special education teacher's aide for kindergarten through fifth grade at Aquila Elementary School in St. Louis Park. In the engineering course she took as part of the STEM certificate, she helped invent light boxes and other objects to engage severely autistic students. 

More about STEM education programs

St. Catherine University's National Center for STEM Elementary Education, launched this summer, is focusing on STEM elementary education programs for schools and districts.

The center was established to improve elementary teacher effectiveness, advance student performance and strengthen society’s literacy in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

It grew out of Murphy’s 2004 proposal for an interdisciplinary STEM curriculum. The multifaceted academic initiative now includes graduate certificates in STEM for both traditional and Montessori teachers — the first of their kind — and the creation of an undergraduate STEM minor (five courses) and STEM certificate (three courses). 

Faculty and staff across six academic departments — education, chemistry, biology, mathematics/physics, Montessori and psychology — have collaborated to create an innovative team-teaching model of STEM curricula recognized by the Minnesota Board of Teaching. Read more about the STEM faculty collaboration in SCAN, February 2010.

Oct. 29, 2010 by Jenny Woods

See also: Education, Faculty, STEM, Students