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Engaged Scholar Promotes STEM & Hones Skills

Frances Harper, assistant professor of STEM/mathematics, is an engaged researcher and teacher. In Harper’s research, she seeks to understand how historically and systematically marginalized students come to see themselves as capable learners and doers of mathematics. In particular, she supports and explores efforts to shift traditional power dynamics in mathematics by building on students’ community and cultural knowledge and experiences. Within the Department of Theory and Practice in Teacher Education, Harper teaches MEDU 530: Teaching Mathematics in the Elementary School, ELED 422: Elementary and Middle School Teaching Methods: Mathematics, and TPTE 695: Case Study Research in Education. As a practitioner-researcher, she works to refine her own teaching with elementary teachers to encourage a more nuanced understanding of equity issues in mathematics.

Harper was awarded an engagement and outreach incentive grant from the Office of Community Engagement and Outreach (OCEO) for her project “Partnering to Support Integrated STEM Learning for Minoritized Youth and Their Future Teachers.” This project established a sustainable, long-term partnership between UT’s mathematics education faculty and students, who are prospective teachers and three urban elementary schools: Fair Garden Preschool, Inskip Elementary, and Pond Gap Elementary. The Center for Enhancing Education in Mathematics and Sciences (CEEMS) and East TN STEM Hub established annual family STEM nights at each of the three elementary schools, which respond to community-identified needs for STEM learning opportunities. The nights are facilitated by prospective elementary teachers of mathematics from the university. They provided K-5 students, their families, and their teachers opportunities for meaningful STEM connections and learning. This goal responds to a state push for full integration of STEM education in K-12 learning as a way to ensure that all students, but particularly those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds or minoritized racial or ethnical groups, can take advantage of vast opportunities in STEM fields.

Harper’s contribution was to bring in pre-service teachers for a specific role in the program. Designing and facilitating community-based STEM activities supports prospective teachers’ goals to identify and build on students’ and communities’ mathematical strengths and gives children, families, and teachers opportunities to engage in meaningful STEM learning. Additionally, the partnership has created opportunities for prospective and practicing teacher learning, including prospective teachers from a different mathematics education course facilitating a STEM-Literacy event and a teacher book club facilitated by Harper, both at Fair Garden Preschool.

Harper was awarded a 2019 mini-grant from OCEO for the project “Urban Parents as Resources in Mathematics Education (U PRIME)” to support minority parents and guardians from low income backgrounds to act more effectively as “intellectual resources” in their children’s mathematics education through a series of workshops. She also received an internal travel grant from OCEO to present the project at the Engaged Scholarship Consortium in October.

Harper recently attended a summer intensive on community engaged scholarship at Michigan State University. The program focused on scholarly approaches to theoretical framings and effective strategies for community engaged teaching and learning, research, and service.

“I appreciated opportunities to learn alongside community engaged scholars from around the world and from community partners such as the Refugee Development Center and women in Flint, MI,” Harper commented.

Based on her experiences at the intensive, Harper feels equipped to transform the family STEM night assignment in MEDU 530 from a community-based (in and about the community) to a community-engaged (with the community) learning experience for her students. The intensive also introduced her to the necessary research literature and theory in community-engaged scholarship to incorporate community-engaged research into grant proposals that she is planning to submit this year.

She is currently seeking external funding to support research on prospective teacher and family learning through this partnership. Harper is planning to expand on this work and sustain collaboration with families by seeking funding through NSF’s CAREER grant program.