In middle school, children either develop an affinity for math and science or begin believing they do not possess the mental agility necessary to succeed in subjects such as algebra and geometry.

Those subjects are important early entry points if young people are to eventually become nurses, physicians, software developers, engineers, business intelligence analysts, and other high-in-demand specialists.

A University of Arizona (UA) team is working to circumvent that lost interest, targeting students before they even reach middle school—and involving their families—while also addressing another pervasive challenge in education: students’ poor sleeping habits.

To drive interest in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, the team has received nearly $1.2 million in funding through Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers, or ITEST, a program of the National Science Foundation.

The UA-led team is launching “A Sleep Education Program to Improve STEM Education in Elementary School,” referred to as “Z-Factor.”

“We believed it important to target students earlier in their educational experiences before their STEM interests and sleep habits decline,” says Michelle Perfect, associate professor in the UA College of Education’s Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies, in a release.

Perfect and co-principal investigator Janet M. Roveda, associate professor in the UA Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, are leading the interdisciplinary initiative.

Partners include the UA College of Nursing, the Arizona Respiratory Center, the Medical School Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard University, and the Southern Arizona Research, Science and Engineering Foundations. Also, the Science and Math Improvement Institute will conduct the external evaluation to ensure an independent review.

Over the next 3 years, more than 500 fourth- and fifth-grade Catalina Foothills School District students will use tools and technology developed by the UA-led team, tracking their sleeping habits in a scientific inquiry and analysis project.

The students will follow sleep science lessons the team is developing in conjunction with the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, a national leader in science education, which could then be used in schools nationwide.

“The Z-Factor project will provide our teachers, students, and parents with an incredible opportunity to participate in an interactive and interdisciplinary STEM curriculum around the sleep habits of young children, using state-of-the art technology to track sleep habits over time and investigate connections to academic and behavioral performance in the school setting,” says Mary Jo Conery, associate superintendent of the Catalina Foothills School District. “We are looking forward to this extraordinary collaborative effort that addresses an important health issue that is personally relevant to our students’ lives.”

Parental Involvement Seen as Vital

The involvement of families is notable.

“As a psychologist, a family systems perspective is integral to the education and health of children,” Perfect says.

The team’s work is informed by evidence-based research suggesting that parental involvement is essential to help boost a child’s development, and to ensure that home conditions are set to support student learning.

“Many science projects do not help parents understand what is happening, preventing disconnections between the school and home, and they don’t necessary teach children how to refine a process,” Perfect says. “The parents are not just checking off a box of homework completion. They are co-investigators. They are actively involved in their child’s school and their learning.”

The project also is driven by an ever-growing body of literature indicating that students take a greater interest and are retained in STEM at higher levels when they are actively engaged in projects that have real-world applications.

And with nationwide data indicating that the United States is not graduating enough STEM degree recipients at the undergraduate level to remain globally competitive, and other research indicating that students lose interest in science and math before high school, the team intends the project to inspire students to follow STEM education and careers.

Students also will benefit from learning experiences outside of the classroom by way of field trips, webinars, and visits with STEM professionals, among other activities. “Students need role models. They need to know that there are individuals with disabilities, with minority backgrounds, who are English-language learners—and that they are all in STEM,” Perfect says.

The team will investigate whether students involved retain an interest in STEM 1 year after their initial involvement.

Thus, the project offers an important and concerted focus on family, health, community-building, and education, Perfect says. “We hope the families will stay involved with their children, and we want to develop a curriculum that is alive and has more meaning,” Perfect says. “To do that, we need to look at what they are learning not only in the classrooms, but outside of schools.”

A Solution-Oriented Effort

Whereas many other STEM-focused research projects tend to focus on a single issue at a time—such as limitations with in-class instruction, necessary improvements to student learning and engagement, or challenges associated with technology—Z-Factor addresses each of these issues through an innovative approach. “ITEST’s mission is to look at ways to instill STEM interest,” Perfect says.

“The majority of proposals focus on middle school, high school, or college,” she says, “but we are focusing on elementary school students, which is the point before they develop worsening sleep habits and before they lose interest in STEM.”

Field testing is set to begin in the spring of 2016, and the team will implement the program in fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms in the fall of 2016. Expansion plans include a second school in the Catalina Foothills district starting in the fall of 2017, and the dissemination of workshops in Tucson-area schools and others nationally.

The team also will provide professional development to the district’s teachers involved in the project, to support teaching strategies and practices that align with the Next Generation Science Standards. Outreach to district families will emphasize parental involvement in children’s learning.

“This project would not be possible without scientists, educators, psychologists, statisticians,” Perfect says.

Perfect and Roveda developed the proposal with Stuart Quan, of the Harvard Medical School Division of Sleep Medicine, and Charlotte Ackerman, a Catalina Foothills School District teacher.

Roveda said the team is developing interactive educational software and curricula to be used with Web-based and mobile technology, developing avatars for the mobile app students will use. Teachers also will have access to training on ways to adopt the educational software.

“We will facilitate the use of the tools and measurement gadgets, which will help students understand their sleep or other activities,” Roveda says. She also noted that the team will be tracking parental involvement.

Students and their families will then be able to gather and analyze information about sleeping patterns, recording their data via mobile devices. The data, which will be secured and protected, will be used for in-school and at-home activities, thus creating direct connections between educators and families, the school and the home.

The focus on sleep is intentional.

“Educators and clinicians often overlook the impact of unaddressed sleep problems when conducting evaluations or designing interventions. Since sleep is relative to everyone’s life, using sleep as the conduit to incite interest in STEM also has the advantage of infusing sleep science into curriculum aligned with state and federal standards,” Perfect says.