Education alumna leads National Institute for STEM Education


Judith Zimny graduated from UMSL with her master’s in educational leadership in 1983. This fall, she was named vice president of the National Institute for STEM Education. (Photo courtesy of Accelerate Learning)

When Judith Zimny graduated from the University of Missouri–St. Louis with her master’s in educational leadership in 1983, she went on to a more than 30-year career in education. She spent 14 of those years as a principal in the Dallas Independent School District, where she opened a new elementary school with a science focus. It was then that she developed a commitment to and passion for science, technology, engineering and math education.

Now Zimny is taking that commitment to the national level. This fall, she became the vice president for the new National Institute for STEM Education, an online institute committed to professional development and certification for K-12 teachers and school districts nationwide.

“I’m thrilled for the opportunity and thrilled for the learning,” Zimny said. “I think STEM is a need that has been only partially filled educationally. Schools and districts and states are really looking for answers, and we’re not going to have all the answers, but I think we’re going to be part of the solution.”

NISE aims to be not only a means of professional development and certification for STEM teachers, but a benchmark of excellence within STEM education.

“The whole belief system around this is that if you build a teacher’s capacity – teachers want to have their capacities built, they like being successful in their work – that will translate into improved strategies and better learning,” Zimny said.

The NISE program is 100 percent online, self-paced and competency-based. It focuses on three domains: creating an environment for learning, building scientific understanding and engaging students in scientific and engineering practices. Teachers learn online, record themselves instituting strategies in the classroom, upload their videos online and receive feedback from a certified STEM coach.

“In the end what you have is a very strong online professional portfolio that serves as evidence of your expertise in the area of teaching STEM,” Zimny said.

Currently 38 teachers have completed the new program, with 50 completions projected by year-end. NISE will have 350 teachers enrolled and in process of completing the program before 2016 closes and is anticipating several large urban district and campus certifications for 2017. The program costs $625 for an individual teacher, but group rates are available.

With NISE still in its first year of existence, Zimny said she and her team are formulating long-term goals for the institute, and she is excited for what this could mean for STEM education nationally.

“I could talk to ten teachers and ask them, ‘What makes a good STEM educator?’ and they would each tell me something different,” she said. “Now I don’t know whether that’s bad or good, but what it does say to me is that there’s not an established minimum-level threshold that’s clear to people. How can we reach a target of excellent STEM education if the target is all fuzzy?”

Zimny is hoping NISE provides that national standard. She also brings to the table strong leadership skills, some of which are rooted in her UMSL education.

“What I learned at UMSL, and what continues to serve me very well, is school leadership,” Zimny said. “How do you approach the people you’re serving in a school if you’re a school leader? How do you work with educators to help inspire them, to help pull them together as a team, to help them be comfortable embracing the change and integrating change into their practice? These are all things that continue to serve me really well in my career.”

And over the years, Zimny has also honed her education philosophy.

“I very much believe that good leaders are servants,” she said. “I believe in teachers so much. My two daughter-in-laws are teachers in the public schools. I see every day how hard and how tirelessly teachers work, and I think that anything that any of us can do to make teachers’ work more successful, more manageable is going to translate directly into students’ well-being and teachers’ well-being, and that’s really where I’m committed. That’s really what makes me excited. There are a lot of people working really, really hard. If we can help them, boy, let’s do it.”

NISE is a division within Accelerate Learning, known for its product STEMscopes, a comprehensive digital curriculum. The teaching technologies and strategies offered through Accelerate Learning and NISE evolved from research at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

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