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Scott M. Niswonger, Chairman and Founder of the Niswonger Foundation announced the award of an “Education Innovation and Research” (EIR) Grant from the U.S. Department of Education that will focus on educational opportunities in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). This five-year grant, with the required matching funds, will provide $8.8 million dollars to serve schools in 21 school districts, grades 6-12, in Northeast Tennessee. Niswonger stated: “It is gratifying to see the Niswonger Foundation, again, recognized on the “national stage” for our efforts in support of rural education and providing the best quality instruction for students in our region.”
The United States Department of Education selected 28 grant recipients based on recommendations from independent peer review panelist. The successful applications represented 17 states and the District of Columbia. The Niswonger Foundation was the only grant recipient in the state of Tennessee.
The Niswonger Foundation has enlisted a stellar lineup of organizations to support this work. Partners will include the BioBuilder Foundation, located at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a program that will introduce students to synthetic biology; cybersecurity experiential opportunities from the University of Alabama at Huntsville; expertise in curriculum design in engineering technology from Purdue University; East Tennessee State University’s math, epidemiology, graphics design and computer science programs; the ETSU Research Corporation; and STEM project-based programs including STREAMWORKS, the Marine Advanced Technology in Education for Inspiration and Innovation; and “If I Had a Hammer.” Niswonger commented: “The list of experts who will be onboard for this work creates an unprecedented opportunity for students in this region. This can be a game-changer for our future.”
This grant will be used to fund a program entitled: Rural Tennessee STEM LD. The Foundation’s staff was influenced by the concept of Learning Design (the “LD” in “STEM.LD”), defined as “the creative and deliberate act of devising new practices, plans of activity, resources and tools aimed at achieving particular educational results in a given context.” The Niswonger Foundation believes that designing student-centered learning ecosystems and pathways can lead to positive student outcomes, from K-12 student achievement to meaningful employment in the workforce post-high school.
The major components of this grant include: 1) strengthening the teaching/learning classroom experiences with engaging materials for students and professional development of teachers; 2) experiential out-of-school time opportunities to explore STEM content; and 3) expanding participation in rigorous STEM and dual enrollment courses. This work will include conducting formative and summative evaluations of the project in order to continuously improve. AnLar, LLC will serve as the external evaluator of this work.
The majority of the 126 schools in this project are designated rural (63%). Approximately 57,000 students will benefit from this program; and at least 48% of these students are considered high-risk/low income. Dr. Nancy Dishner, Niswonger Foundation President and CEO commented on the strength of the Consortium of Northeast Tennessee school systems: “We are uniquely positioned to receive national attention because of our strong consortium of school systems and system leadership. We provide convincing evidence of what you can accomplish when you work in partnership.” The team of Dr. Richard Kitzmiller, Niswonger Foundation Vice President, Law Loving, the Foundation’s Director of Workforce Readiness, Bryce Warden, State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), and Dishner prepared and submitted this grant.
This marks the third U.S. Department of Education grant received by the Niswonger Foundation. Previously, the Foundation received a $21 million dollar Investing in Innovation Grant (i3), which was the precursor to this first-round of the EIR grants. The initial Niswonger grant was recognized for having five statistically significant research findings. Focused on college and career readiness, these data show that students in the Niswonger Consortium were more likely to 1) have a higher ACT score; 2) complete an Advanced Placement (AP) course; 3) score 3 or higher on AP courses; 4) enroll in post-secondary education; and 5) persist in post-secondary education. The second Federal grant, Rural LIFE (Literacy Initiative Focused on Effectiveness) is currently serving 66 middle schools in the region. The Foundation is also partnering with the New Teacher Center in another U.S. DOE EIR grant focused on professional development. This grant is serving 89 schools in Northeast Tennessee.