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Creating Citizens of Today and Leaders of Tomorrow, Lalitha Murali Pushes for STEM Literacy

By Ana Martinez-Ortiz | The Madison Times

Everyone knows that children are the leaders of tomorrow, but leaders aren’t born, they’re made. Preparing students to be those leaders means equipping them with the tools to create a better tomorrow. Lalitha Murali, a coordinator for the gifted and talented program at Glen Hills Middle School, believes STEM is the way to do this.

Murali is one of 95 teachers to have recently received a STEM Research grant from Society for Science, a nonprofit organization based in Washington D.C. The organization’s grant program provides awards to schools in diverse and low-income communities.

Society for Science allocated the grants two ways. Some recipients, such as Murali, received research kits valued at $1,000 per kit, while others received funds directly to purchase equipment. In Murali’s case, the kits such as the LaMotte Water Monitoring Kit used to investigate water quality and contamination, will help her students with their science fair projects.

Sixth grade students learn about water and sewage treatment on Jones Island. (Photo provided by Lalitha Murali)

“I’m very fortunate to get the STEM research grant this year to engage our students in authentic scientific research,” said Murali, who is also co-president and board member for the Wisconsin science Education Foundation.

She continued, “I believe that STEM education is so important because it not only teaches them the science and math concepts, but they also learn various 21st century skills like communication, initiative social skills, problem-solving, critical thinking, creative decision-making and so many more.”

In addition to increasing STEM literacy and interest among her students, Murali’s goal is to increase the number of students from traditionally underrepresented groups in STEM research competitions.

Eighth graders collect water samples from the Milwaukee River. (Photo provided by Lalitha Murali)

About 60% of the student population in the Glendale-River Hills School District is minority students, Murali said. They don’t always have the same opportunities as other schools, but Murali is changing that.

Over the years, she has taken to applying for various grants that allow her to support underrepresented groups. For example, she recently received a grant from HERstory Curriculum, which provides opportunities for minority girls to build their leadership skills.

Through a grant from the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, the entire sixth grade class visited Jones Island to learn about water and sewage treatment. The middle school science teachers also applied to be a part of the Learn Deep fellowship, which encourages teacher to collaborate with their fellow educators to develop and pilot real world learning experiences for their students, Murali said.

Students test water samples at Kletzsch Park with help from environmentalist from Wehr Nature Center. (Photo provided by Lalitha Murali)

Murali also works with community partners to engage students. Milwaukee Riverkeepers visited and worked with students on water testing. Another time, individuals from Wehr Nature Center took students to Kletzsch Park to explore the river.

These hands-on experiences help students as they research and prepare their science projects for various competitions such as Future City or the Badger State Science & Engineering Fair.

Few schools participate in science fairs, Murali noted. And while Glen Hills Middle School sweeps the competition, she wishes more schools engaged in them.

Murali’s two daughters both competed in science fairs and are now in medical school. A former student of hers, Joyce Essuman, was accepted into Stanford University and noted that Murali’s gifted and talented class was part of the reason.

“As a parent and an educator, I feel that it’s important to provide opportunities to students so that they can get into their career path that they’re passionate about,” Murali said.

“We have to do everything in our power to help them to be successful. Too often in education we forget what learning is all about, it’s not mere task completion, it’s about developing a mental skill set and depth of understanding.”

In the Future City competition, students design, research and build cities of the future. The goal is to showcase a sustainable solution to a city-wide issue, Murali said. This year, the theme was waste-free future and students created a waste-free city out of recycled materials based on the circular economy model, which advocates for products to be reused, recycled, shared and so on.

“One thing I really like about this project is that it gives them opportunities to do things that engineers do like identifying problems, brainstorming ideas, define solutions, testing, re-resting, sharing their results,” Murali said. “Basically, they follow the engineer design process.”

Students gain practical skills while learning how their communities work and how to be better citizens.

“By completing these projects, they are not only prepared to be citizens of today, but they are also going to become drivers of tomorrow,” Murali said.

Students are like sponges, Murali said, they grasp everything. They’re quick to catch on to these STEM concepts and then they’re motivated to learn more. At Glen Hills Middle School students can develop their STEM literacy through chess club, robotics, coding classes with Gearbox Labs and more.

“I believe that STEM education is very important,” Murali said. “It prepares today’s children to become innovators and inventors of tomorrow. That’s why I’m big on providing hands-on experience and real-world application necessary to develop innovative minds.”

The Future City competition is hosting a national championship and you can vote for the Glen Hills Middle School’s Waste-Free City for the people’s choice award. To vote, click the link or visit https://vote.futurecity.org/all-entries/?_sfm_team_name=Greendale%20City&_sfm_state=WI The team recently won the Wisconsin state championship. 

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