BUXTON, Maine — For the past three years, Erin Hullinger has been mastering a somewhat difficult task: keeping classrooms of kids at Bonny Eagle Middle School in Buxton engaged.
Hullinger teaches science and said she understands the importance of active learning, having not discovered her own passion for the subject until later on in her education.
"I didn't have a lot of exposure to hands-on science things until I was an adult," Hullinger said, later adding, "I always thought of science as something that just wasn't for me. I really struggled in chemistry. Biology felt like a lot of memorization."
Hullinger is now looking to change that for her students through a new opportunity. In April, she found out she was selected as one of 10 middle school science teachers nationwide to take part in the National STEM Scholar Program.
It gives teachers an opportunity to take part in advanced Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math training and network with others. It also provides funding for each of them to put on a project in their classroom they may not have been able to afford, otherwise.
Hullinger said she is planning to use those funds to have her kids raise brook trout eggs next year. She said her kids will do water testing to determine the best place to release the fish, and then when the time is right, they'll let them go into the wild locally.
"It's mixing human impacts, chemistry, water quality, as well as ecosystems and native species," Hullinger said.
This is the eighth class for the National STEM Scholar Program, which the National Stem Cell Foundation created. CEO of the National Stem Cell Foundation Paula Grisanti said a big goal of the program is getting more kids interested in STEM at an earlier age.
"All of the research says if you don't grab those kids by middle school, you've lost them," Grisanti said. "They're not going to take those classes in high school. They're sure not going to major in them at the technical or college level."
Grisanti said the need for STEM workers is a "national crisis." She said in about a year, there will be 3 million STEM positions in the country open with no one to fill them. She said currently, about 28 percent of STEM professionals come from India; 22 percent are from China; and just 10 percent are from the United States.
The National STEM Scholar Program has 80 middle school science teachers from across 33 states who have taken part so far. According to Grisanti, it's a way for these teachers to expand their education and skills and then continue that work when they return to school.
"Our student scholars have gone home and created 3-D printing labs, aquaponics farms, robotics labs, rocketry programs," Grisanti said.
"Getting kids out in our community and actually taking action shows them that this isn't just something that's in a book. It's something that really applies to their lives each and every day," Jim Hand, the principal of Bonny Eagle Middle School, said.
Hand said while he wasn't surprised that Hullinger was selected for this honor, he and his team are "blown away."
"Erin is one of those educators who thinks in a way to help kids learn the basics; but at the same time, think about it in a way where they can translate that, hopefully in the future in their careers and in their education," Hand said.
Hullinger is leaving for Western Kentucky University at the end of the week to meet with this year's other National STEM Scholars and the facilitators of the program. Next April, she'll present her project at a national conference. You can learn more about the National STEM Scholar Program here.