The Santa Fe Institute’s Learning Lab has received a nearly $3 million National Science Foundation Award to develop and study a robust professional development program for middle school teachers. 

As computer science and technology become indispensable to scientific research and industry, science education standards are changing to stay current with modern scientific practices. The new Next Generation Science Standards, which are being adopted by an increasing number of states, require teachers to incorporate computational thinking, modeling and simulation into their science curriculum. Many teachers, however, are not yet prepared to provide this education.

The NSF Award funds a new program called “Teachers with GUTS” that builds on a long trajectory of work. Over the past 18 years, Irene Lee, Director of the Learning Lab, has helped promote computational thinking through a variety of programs. A recent collaboration with helped the Learning Lab’s Project GUTS expand from an extracurricular program in New Mexico into a classroom-integrated science curriculum offered in schools around the country. The Lab also provides in-person teacher trainings in ten states, and, with funding from Google, developed a MOOC that provided online training to 936 teachers in 58 countries.

The latest award, however, is the largest grant the Learning Lab has received. It provides a significant opportunity for research and iterative development over the next four years to meet the need for professional development in computational thinking, modeling, and simulation of complex systems. Most middle school teachers today, unlike their students, did not grow up with easy access to computers, and that can make integrating computer modeling and simulation within science classes intimidating. 

“We see in the next five years a huge increase in the number of teachers who will be asking for this kind of teacher preparation,” says Lee. Teachers with GUTS will focus on identifying the best ways to reach different teachers, whether through online learning communities, MOOCs or in-person professional development. “At the end, we’ll hopefully know…the best preparation for them and how we can leverage an online professional development network to expand learning opportunities for science teachers.”