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Christine Cutucache


Creating a Pathway to Stronger Communities Through STEM

By Jackie Ostrowicki

February 2022

What do honey purity, catapult building, seismology, and cloud formations have in common?

They’re all hands-on STEM lessons that help kids learn about science by experiencing it. Part of the NE STEM 4U lesson plans, these topics are brought into public school environments across the Omaha metro community by University of Nebraska at Omaha students like Maggie Kehler.

Kehler is a senior Noyce Scholar at UNO majoring in biology and secondary education. She is currently student-teaching biology classes at Thomas Jefferson High School in Council Bluffs, where she works with 9th and 10th graders.

Experiential learning is an engaged learning process whereby students learn by doing and then by reflecting on the experience. Cutucache calls it “hands-on, minds-on learning.”

She is also involved with NE STEM 4U, a student-run, faculty-advised organization at UNO. The program provides out-of-school STEM programming to elementary and middle school students, while engaging UNO students in leadership and mentorship roles.

“It’s taught me a lot about how to run a future classroom and what it’s like to be a good listener to students,” Kehler said. “We’re in seven different schools in the Omaha area. Mentors go into schools for an hour each day and interact with about 15 kids at a time.”

Kehler has served both as a mentor and has helped to run the NE STEM 4U program behind the scenes, scheduling students to help with after-school programs and packing the totes that the mentors use to bring science to life. Lessons are hands-on and range from volcanic activity to discovering why life jackets are buoyant. “We have fun in the classroom, but we also talk about life,” she said. “We want the kids we’re working with to know someone cares about them.”

Education That’s Hands-On, Minds-On

NE STEM 4U is one of the many programs and initiatives made possible by UNO’s STEM TRAIL Center.

The STEM TRAIL Center was established in May 2019 to further teaching, research and learning in STEM areas. Dr. Christine Cutucache, the Center’s director, is passionate about experiential learning, which helps students better internalize and retain knowledge. A first-generation student from Wisconsin, Cutucache attended the University of Nebraska at Kearney as an undergrad and completed her graduate work in biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

“I was interested in hands-on learning even as an undergrad,” she said. "If you get on-the-job training, then you're probably more likely to get a job.” Focus on undergraduate research is a practice that Cutucache employs at UNO.

Some students learn and perform best by doing; performance-based evaluation measures their ability to apply the knowledge they’ve learned versus being assessed only by tests.

Cutucache confessed that learning did not always come easily to her. She shared, “I was the kid who struggled through every class. I struggled to pay attention. I struggled to see the application of the content that we were supposed to learn. I was not a good test taker, and I was frustrated by the fact that we had to take these tests when there was no measure of how we could apply it.”

She considers her learning style as she develops curriculum and programming. “When we know how learning takes place, we can direct our energy in approaches that are most likely to promote student learning.” Experiential learning is an engaged learning process where students learn by doing and then by reflecting on the experience. Cutucache calls it “hands-on, minds-on learning.”

Cutucache noted that science education researchers prefer to include assessment strategies of student learning that expand beyond traditional assessments. For example, she emphasized utilizing things like performance-based evaluation, which measures students' ability to apply the skills and knowledge learned from study. “It helps students to be evaluated by multiple methods,” she explained. 

STEM Initiatives That are Innovative, Scalable and Ongoing

STEM occupations out-earn non-STEM fields by 12 to 30 percent across all education levels. Yet, there is a shortage of STEM workers—with an estimated 3.5 million jobs that will need to be filled by 2025. A Pew research study notes that the prospects for increasing the STEM workforce are closely tied to the educational system.

The STEM TRAIL Center is part of a national network of STEM education centers, but is unique to Nebraska. It formalizes infrastructure and support around STEM, combining knowledge of teaching and learning with deep knowledge of discipline-specific science content.

The Teacher Researcher Partnership Program allows public school teachers to do research in the summer time with UNO’s STEM faculty.

As an example, they support current K-12 teachers through programs like the Teacher Researcher Partnership Program, which allows public school teachers to do research in the summer time with UNO’s STEM faculty. The center also encourages lifelong learning in STEM, such as providing family programming and helping separating military personnel, many of whom are trained in STEM but need to translate their skills through civilian life.

What ties these initiatives together are three strategic pillars—teaching and innovation opportunities, entrepreneurial ventures, and a return on investment—with experiential learning at the foundation. All programs or initiatives that fit within those pillars also have to have extramural funding to be sustainable.

“As an example, we're getting grant funding to serve in the after-school space—saving parents, public schools, and the state the need to pay for it,” Cutucache said. “And we're providing high-quality STEM content, helping students increase their ability. It's a win-win.”

“Programs like the STEM TRAIL Center contribute to economic development by supporting talent. Talent development and talent acquisition and retention are the bedrock of all economic development needs. If you don't have top talent, then everything else falls by the wayside.”

—Christine Cutucache

Developing STEM Learners and Workers

Jeff Cole, vice president of the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation and network lead at Beyond School Bells, is a long-term partner with Cutucache. The Foundation invests in and advances community solutions that create positive change for children, and Beyond School Bells builds partnerships that lead to policy and action around after-school and summer programs.

Cole is an advocate of the NE STEM 4U program. “One of the greatest needs in after-school programs are informal learning experiences, especially around STEM. These are critical to developing young people’s sense of themselves as STEM learners and workers,” he said. “NASA talked to their employees and discovered that it’s wasn’t grades or schooling that turned them on to a life of science—it was informal learning experiences. Because of their less-structured nature, after-school and summer programs produce rich learning experiences.

In science, it’s okay to fail—in fact, you need to fail—but in school that’s penalized. After-school programs create a unique window in which students can explore their passions and have fulfilling experiences.”

“We're getting grant funding to serve in the after-school space, thus saving parents, public schools, and the state the need to pay for it. And we're providing high-quality STEM content, helping students increase their ability. It's a win-win.”

—Christine Cutucache

Michelle Arehart, who has served for 18 years as the director for the Kearney Community Learning Center, agrees. KCLC provides academic-based after-school programs to Kearney Public Schools, and she sees the need to bring in experiences and give young people wider lens on what’s possible. Arehart has worked with Cutucache for several years to expand access to out-of-school time opportunities in high-quality STEM instruction.

“Programs like NE STEM 4U expose children to career clusters—not just traditional jobs, but others that they may not have thought of. It helps them to be more prepared and give them experiences that they might not have on their own,” Arehart said.

“We’ve got the academic piece down, helping the kids with homework. But we need partners like Christine to help us bring the experts in. The more community partners who come in, the more my students can get ideas of potential career paths earlier in their lives.”

Making a Difference for Nebraska

The STEM TRAIL Center at UNO contributes to workforce development in our state in many ways. The teacher training they provide helps produce stronger educators—but that’s just part of the Center’s work. “The workforce needs in our state are acute. We have so many open jobs, and so few folks to fill those jobs,” Cutucache said. “There are many individuals who need a little bit of rescaling or refresh on some of their skill sets in order to fill those jobs. We offer workshops to offer opportunities for folks who may be changing careers or want to increase their skills, but don't have the time to take a full-fledged program.”

Cutucache says programs like the STEM TRAIL Center also contribute to economic development by supporting talent. “Talent development, acquisition, and retention are the bedrock of all economic development needs. If you don't have top talent, then everything else falls by the wayside.”

Note: Christine Cutucache has left her position at UNO since this article was published, and the STEM Trail Center is being led by Christopher Moore, Ph.D.

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