U.S. Department of Defense Awards UToledo $3 Million to Promote STEM Education in Early Childhood to Military-Connected Families

October 6, 2020 | News, UToday, Engineering, Judith Herb College of Education
By Christine Billau

NURTURES, an innovative early childhood STEM education program led by The University of Toledo that has shown success in classrooms and homes across the region, is going national.

The U.S. Department of Defense awarded UToledo a three-year, $3 million grant to offer the program to military-connected families across the country with partners including Georgia State University and Washington School Research Associates.

UToledo’s project is one of 12 selected out of 185 applicants in the U.S. to be awarded a total of $31 million through the National Defense Education Program.

“The Department of Defense is proud to support the STEM workforce our Nation needs to maintain our technological superiority far into the future,” said Michael Kratsios, acting under secretary of defense for research and engineering. “We are particularly pleased with the range of initiatives pursued by this year’s awardees, with programs for early childhood education, post-secondary study and outreach to student veterans. This investment will be critical to expanding STEM opportunities to students, educators and veterans in underserved, underrepresented and military-connected communities.”

NURTURES improves pre-K-through-third-grade STEM education, which includes science, technology, engineering and math, through teacher professional development, family engagement and community outreach. These efforts to enhance teaching and learning early in a child’s life have resulted in greater student interest and achievement in STEM in the program’s nine years in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan.

Data from standardized testing in Toledo Public Schools show an increase in reading, early literacy and math scores in students of teachers who have participated in NURTURES, with gains being sustained through 5thgrade.

Dr. Charlene Czerniak, professor emeritus of science education and research professor in the UToledo College of Engineering, leads the NURTURES project.

According to research published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, every year that a student has a NURTURES program teacher adds on average 8.6 points to a student’s early literacy standardized test score compared to control students, 17 points to a student’s mathematics score and 41.4 points to a student’s reading score.

The program through the Department of Defense will be transitioned from a face-to-face format to a virtual format, while also mailing family science take-home packs and community event materials directly to schools for home and community use.

“We are proud to scale up nearly a decade of work that our UToledo team started here in the Toledo area,” said Dr. Charlene Czerniak, professor emeritus of science education and research professor in the UToledo College of Engineering, who is leading the project. “NURTURES has helped more than 5,000 students and 330 teachers across northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan. I believe it is a great fit for military families. They move so often, it is critical to invest in opportunities to engage families and focus on family and community.”

A hallmark of the NURTURES program is that it goes beyond professional development and coaching for early childhood education teachers to better teach science to their young students. By also educating parents how to support their child’s STEM learning at home and through events in the community, NURTURES provides a lasting mechanism to support STEM learning across a child’s lifetime.

The Department of Defense award allows NURTURES to be offered to 135 teachers, 2,700 underserved and underrepresented pre-K-through-third-grade students, and 10,800 military-connected family members throughout the United States.

In the first year, professional development for early childhood teachers will be delivered on-site to Purple Star schools in Ohio and schools linked to Fort Benning in Georgia and Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington.

In the second year, NURTURES will be transitioned to an online format. It will be offered fully online by the third year and expanded across the country to military bases, the Military Interstate Children’s Compact Commission, military-connected schools and Purple Star schools in Georgia, Alabama, Washington, Florida, Virginia, Massachusetts and New Mexico with all branches of the military represented.

Twelve states now have Purple Star-designated schools.

“The award for military family-friendly schools recognizes campuses and communities that show a major commitment to students and families connected to our nation’s military,” said Pete LuPiba, commissioner for the Military Interstate Children’s Compact Commission and veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, who founded the Purple Star School Award initiative four years ago to address the educational challenges of transitioning children of military families.

“We have witnessed the positive outcomes of this program on young children attending schools in our region, and the UToledo College of Engineering is fortunate to have Dr. Charlene Czerniak continue her leadership of this project as it expands from a regional to a national level,” Dr. Mike Toole, dean of the UToledo College of Engineering, said. “As a military veteran, I also am pleased that the NURTURES program will be able to make a positive impact on military families and their children.”

Dr. Scott Molitor, professor of bioengineering and senior associate dean of academic affairs in the UToledo College of Engineering, is working with Czerniak to lead the national project. Several experts from the UToledo Judith Herb College of Education are also involved in the project, including Dr. Susanna Hapgood, associate professor in the Department of Teacher Education, and Dr. Joan Kaderavek, professor emerita of early childhood, physical and special education and Distinguished University Professor.

Family packets and community event materials are planned to be mailed to participants through a process using Lott Industries in Toledo, a nationally recognized and award-winning nonprofit organization that hires individuals with developmental disabilities for light packaging and assembly.

The NURTURES program was originally a five-year, $10 million program funded in 2011 by the National Science Foundation to engage teachers and parents in supporting a young child’s natural curiosity through interactive science lessons. The National Science Foundation awarded an additional $2.3 million dollars to NURTURES three years ago.

In 2017 the American Association of State Colleges and Universities honored UToledo with its Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in recognition of NURTURE’s success in improving student achievement.


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