Dordt College recieves largest grant in its history

The college will designate part of the grant to scholarships while the remainder will go to recruit more students into STEM education. Photo submitted


SIOUX CENTER—A large grant from the National Science Foundation will encourage Dordt College to continue to push STEM education for future educators.

Dordt was awarded a $1.2 million Noyce Grant for STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — education. The college will designate $810,000 to student scholarships while the remainder will go to recruit more students into STEM education. It is the largest grant in Dordt history.

“I’m really excited for what this will do for Dordt,” said Dordt mathematics professor Valorie Zonnefeld, the principal investigator and grant writer. “This is a huge boost and is really going to help us recruit STEM teachers.”

Dordt’s director of research and scholarship Nathan Tintle said the NSF grant will fund new initiatives and opportunities.

“It’s based on the history of strong science and STEM education, along with excellence in our education department,” he said. “Both of those programs have been highlighted and recognized for a long time. The opportunity we saw five years ago when we started ramping some of these efforts up was letting others know about that.”

While a focus of the grant is STEM, it’s also about teacher education efforts, according to Dordt provost Eric Forseth. 

“The partnership is a two-cord string,” he said. 

Forseth pointed to a “dearth” of educators in certain fields. The hope is that the grant can be utilized to help in STEM fields. 

In 2003, the state of Iowa recognized the teacher shortage in STEM areas. In 2011, more than 20 percent of math teachers and more than 15 percent of science teachers were not certified to teach in their area. A year later, the NSF found that 27 percent of math teachers and 18 percent of science teachers did not even have a degree in math or science.

Future teachers

With this new grant, Dordt hopes to attract future teachers, even those who may not have considered a STEM career before. In the next five years 54 scholarships will be available to Dordt students with double majors in education and a STEM field, including biology, chemistry, earth science, engineering and physics.

“I think what we’ve seen is that students interested in the STEM fields are frequently heading toward industry,” Tintle said. “That’s understandable, but this program through the National Science Foundation, is to help these people look at being a high school, middle school or elementary teacher in the STEM fields. The scholarship money might help some students tip the scale in that direction.”

The effort includes helping to bring education and STEM faculty out into high schools to discuss STEM education. 

Dordt already has a pilot project created by Zonnefeld that includes incentives for freshman and sophomore STEM field majors to look at being an eduction major.

“If I were a math major, I would ask what would it look like if I were a high school math teacher; if I were a biology major, what would it look like if I were a biology teacher,” Tintle said. “It provides a small stipend and gets them into local schools. It’s trying to build more pathways into STEM education fields. We’ve seen that this year. A few of them have said ‘I’m going to continue to be a math or science major but I’m going to add the education certification.’ That’s what we’re hoping happens.”

Tintle is excited about the grant and how NSF has supported the program.

“Dordt already has a long history and we’ve seen the opportunity,” he said. “This allows us to share that vision and get more people to buy in. It validates that we’re onto something else.”

Good rapport

The college has received a number of grants from the NSF. Tintle said working with the foundation has been important in building a good rapport.

“It’s about momentum,” he said. “Once we get our foot in the door, they give us a small investment and see how we have been successful. The next time we go back, even if it is a different program, they have confidence.”

Tintle said the college made its case for dissemination in the STEM field.

“Our case is that we’re a small rural school that serves rural students who will go and teach in rural high schools,” he said. “As we can tell NSF how we are successful building off what we already had, we can become a model for other places. We can present at conferences and write papers. It becomes more than just doing — it’s sharing with others.”

Conversations about the program with Zonnefeld and Tintle go back about three years.

“The first 12 to 18 months was about how we wanted to structure the program,” he said. “At that point, we didn’t submit the application because we decided we weren’t ready. We decided to wait and restructure our leadership team during that time. We really ramped up writing about it last spring and submitted the grant last September. It’s a long process.”

Additional co-principal investigators include Ryan Zonnefeld, Tom Clark and Jeff Ploegstra. Ryan Zonnefeld, an education professor, will serve as the grant compliance monitor to ensure that scholarship awardees are serving in high-need schools. Clark, a mathematics professor, and Ploegstra, a biology professor, will serve as leaders of STEM-related outreach events to local schools.

“Kudos to Val, she was very persistent in pushing this program,” Forseth said.