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Model program: Indiana GEAR UP

Hands-on tinkering and making facilitate equal opportunities for all students

Published August 27, 2019

Leadership Perspective

TPN: The Pitsco Network
VB: Dr. Virginia Bolshakova, Executive Director, GEAR UP Indiana at Purdue University

TPN: Tell us about your background in education and your work with Indiana GEAR UP.
In the community where I grew up, the people who had college degrees were our teachers and coaches, so I thought that’s probably what I was going to do as the first generation in my family to go to college. And by the time I got to the end of my undergraduate degree I realized, oh, there’s this whole other field in science and other things that I can do. I completed my undergraduate degree in Biology and minored in Psychology with a teaching credential and continued down the field of applied research. Eventually, that turned into a master’s degree in Science Curriculum & Instruction and a PhD in Insect Ecology (a branch of applied entomology). I’ve been in education for 15 years, and I’m going into my third year with GEAR UP.

TPN: What do you do as executive director of Indiana GEAR UP?
I work on strategic planning, program management, research, and data collection and reporting – all those aspects of a statewide program that reaches nine school districts, 23 school partners, and a cohort of 7,000 students. So, I am the principal investigator on the project. All program evaluation flows through me, which includes in-the-school and out-of-school programs and activities.

TPN: Are the participating schools primarily urban, or does it vary?
We have urban, rural, everything in between. Some of the underlying commonalities are all of them have 50 percent and above free and reduced-price meals. So, they’re low-income communities and under-resourced schools. With GEAR UP, we’re partnering with schools to fill in some gaps they may have and provide additional resources to support some of the good work that’s already going on but also provide additional tools and training to help students, parents, and teachers succeed in different areas.

TPN: Is GEAR UP focused on all academic areas?
Yes, all academic areas – we do target some of the major areas like mathematics, science, and English language arts that are part of Indiana’s Core 40. However, our primary focus is the STEM and STEAM areas.

The vision for this seven-year grant was that STEM is a 21st-century skill. The logic, tools of logic, curiosity, collaboration, all those things are skills that students need to be successful as engaged and competent adults. And those are also areas where our students are not always prepared for the college level, especially in mathematics and science. Another big goal is increasing preparedness and readiness for whatever is postsecondary. Sometimes, students don’t realize the choices they make as a freshman in high school may put them on a pathway in mathematics that may not get them to where they need to be for the first year of undergraduate programming. Or maybe they want to do something else; they want to go to a trade school that fits better with their goals and aspirations. We want to make sure we are working with students to inspire and explore various pathways that align with their interests and passions.

TPN: Tell us about that range of options that students have after high school.
The range of options are extensive and ever changing: skilled trades and special certifications, internships, college and university, military, and other informal and formal training options. There may even be future educational pathways that don’t currently exist. The important thing is that we are developing lifelong learners ready to shift, adapt, and learn many skills and trades that contribute to a healthy, happy, and fulfilling life.

TPN: What specific resources does GEAR UP provide to the schools?
We provide teacher trainings and professional development throughout the year, especially in the summers, to help build capacity at the school level, targeting the areas of math and science. If we can help the teachers do their jobs to the best of their abilities, that’s going to help our students to be successful. We also provide in-school support with mentor and master teachers who have been in the middle school and high school classroom for more than 10 to 15 years. All our regional directors have that credential and are specialists in science and/or math, and they provide support as mentors and co-teachers. In addition, we provide additional instructional support in the classroom through tutors.

TPN: How does GEAR UP assist students outside of the school day?
Our out-of-school programs provide not only tutoring support but rigorous STEM hands-on learning opportunities that will reinforce some of the standards that the students are learning during the school day. We have developed and delivered summer STEAM-focused camps as well as ongoing after-school programming. Instead of passive learning, the STEM activities are meant to be very engaging, hands-on, project-based learning experiences. My background in fields ecology and entomology took a very hands-on approach to experimental design, exploring the environment, and making sense of systems with lots of data. I’m very passionate about making sure students get a better sense of how messy science and learning can look. It’s not just from a cookbook. There’s a lot of exploration, excitement, and failure that goes on, and so we try to provide that in our out-of-school program space.

TPN: How did you end up selecting Pitsco’s hands-on solutions?
We have a curriculum we’ve been working on, and that’s actually where we first started working with Pitsco this past year. We had done a CO2 dragster unit, and it worked really well; the students responded well to it. One of the motivations for bringing interactive STEAM modules into after-school is things like tech ed classes, or shop and drafting class was what I had as a kid. Those are no longer in the school. So, we are providing these types of hands-on, making, tinkering opportunities outside of school. That’s a unique experience that our programs can provide. Some of our schools are getting almost 10 percent of the student body participating in the after-school program, which is remarkable for this grade level.

TPN: How are schools using their Pitsco Maker Carts?
Each maker cart is composed of several units. In total, I think we have nine different units from Pitsco, but we have additional units on that cart. It’s going to be a resource that’s available to students in the after-school programs as well as to teachers during the school day. Our goal is that this infusion of resources – people, programs, materials – is sustainable. And that’s probably the biggest job of the executive director is to make sure that happens. We don’t want to be a “we show up for these seven years and then it’s gone after the grant.” We are really trying to build capacity and pathways for our students, teachers, schools, communities to be successful in the long run. And so these maker carts from Pitsco will be an amazing tool to add to our schools’ resource kit, but a tool is nothing without learning how to use the tool. The teachers will be able to get training from Pitsco as well as some of our staff.

TPN: You touched on the CO2 dragster unit. Can you elaborate on how that was used and received by students?
We used this during the after-school program at all of our middle schools during the 2018-19 school year, and I can tell you with confidence it was one of the most popular things we’ve done because the students actually got to use tools, they got to use the design process to implement their own ideas with their hands and create something to go against these different challenges as they were solving problems. It was creative. It was collaborative. It was just a true real-world application of things that they’ve been learning. And, of course, who doesn’t like the sound and sight of firing off the CO2 car? That’s exciting!

TPN: Did teachers and students use Pitsco’s Science of Speed curriculum?
They did. So, it looked different in each school based on how much time they had. But yes, we did use the Science of Speed curriculum as our guide. I think it’s important with any of these units that we prove to the teachers that we are correlating it to the standards that they have to meet during the school year. It’s a win-win that way. Not only is it fun for the students, but also the teachers can approach the unit knowing that those academic aspects are going to be met in a fun, creative way.

TPN: Is part of the aim to achieve equity of opportunity and reach as many students as possible?
Yes. We surveyed our students to get feedback from them. When we asked what they enjoyed the most in the out-of-school programs, it was using tools, it was creating things with their hands, it was designing not just an idea but actually making something or doing something with that idea. After seeing some success with the CO2 cars and other units that we’ve done that truly resonated with students, the student survey informed what components and STEAM modules would go into the maker cart. It was an open-ended survey with our students and teachers, but we kind of leaned a little bit more to the students’ responses because they’re going to be the ones doing the learning. And they gave us lists of what they really wanted to have more of, and these were things that they felt they didn’t have as many opportunities in the school to do. And so that’s where the robotics, renewable energy, programming, coding, and those types of units became part of our program. From there, we went to look for vendors that could provide these different materials as well as curricula. And we had such a great experience with Pitsco, the CO2 car units, so we ended up going with Pitsco for a bulk of our needs.

TPN: What are some other unique aspects of the GEAR UP program?
We also provide family diner nights once a month, where we invite parents and students and others from the community to come to school together to do a fun interactive STEAM activity or maybe something else that’s working on professional or personal skills, like how to do a résumé or how to speak in an interview. We also have provided interactive STEAM camps, or institutes, for students during the summer. We provide a weeklong activity that allows students to explore different STEAM fields and to work on projects that are often related to real-world issues in their community. Last year, the students built controlled-environment agricultural systems. This year, we’re partnering with MIT and the OpenAg Foundation to have the students build personal food computers (PFCs). Our GEAR UP students in Indiana and students from Boston Public Schools will be the first in the nation to have their hands on this technology!

TPN: Why is it important to give students an opportunity to explore outside of school when grades aren’t attached?
It’s an informal space where they have mentors and friends and just have fun in a relaxed environment to explore things that are not high stakes. The hope is that if we catch a spark, their spark they’re interested in, this’ll help them with motivation in the school day. We know that teachers don’t have all the time, materials, or capacity to do a lot of these types of projects, and that’s where GEAR UP comes in. Our team helps provide that environment for students in the out-of-school days, which will help inspire them again to do well during the school day.

TPN: Teachers don’t have to be experts in STEM subjects to teach them, do they?
Not all of our staff have backgrounds in STEM, tech ed, or any of this stuff. So, a lot of them are learning it along with the students, and I think that’s an important aspect to all of this as well because these students will see their teacher during the school day being the expert at whatever their field is. When we go to the out-of-school day, they really are learning together. If the teacher is fumbling and the students are fumbling, they’re fumbling together and figuring it out. That’s FUN! When it’s done the best, it’s truly a collaboration where the student is on the same level as the teacher as they’re working through these different projects.

TPN: How do you know that the first two years of Indiana GEAR UP have been effective?
I think the indicators are that our programs are growing in participation. Whether it’s in school or out of school, we’re seeing increased numbers, we’re reaching at times 10 percent of the entire cohort at some of our schools in after-school alone. That’s a good indicator. We also are seeing retention of students week after week and year after year – that’s promising. So, they’re coming back for more. There are other metrics that we will be looking at now that we’ve had two full years of implementation.

TPN: What are students saying about the program?
One of our kids from camp who got to participate in project-based learning said, “I like how this program makes everyone feel like they can do something. Everyone has a chance to do everything they want to do.”

TPN: Ultimately, what impact do you hope Indiana GEAR UP has?
Our hope is that we support students to live the best lives of their dreams, and that impacts the next generation after them. Yes, we’re going to contribute to research practice and policy in STEAM education, not only here in Indiana but throughout the United States. To me though, it’s students first; that other stuff is second.

Among the Pitsco Education STEM materials used by Indiana GEAR UP: TETRIX® MAX Dual-Control Robotics Set, Fable robotics, CO2 dragsters, Science of Speed curriculum, straw rockets, solar cars, wind energy, straw structures, toothpick bridges, Green Future STEM Unit, Unconventional Flight STEM Unit, and mobile storage units (maker carts).

“Everything fell into place with the STEM PD. I’ve been astounded by the creativity and the innovative ideas that our teachers have come up with in doing the design challenges that they’ve been given by the Pitsco facilitators.”

– Nicole Murray, district STEM coordinator, Duplin County, North Carolina

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