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$5 million in building funds needed for STEM school

Senator Richard Durb(D-Ill.) U.S. Rep. Bill Foster (D-Naperville) listens as AurorMayor Tom Weisner right talks about AurorUniversity's STEM initiatives proposed

Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and U.S. Rep. Bill Foster (D-Naperville) listens as Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner, right, talks about Aurora University's STEM initiatives and a proposed new building on April 3. | Brian Powers~Sun Times Media

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Updated: May 15, 2013 6:42AM

AURORA — Construction is expected to begin late this year, or early next year on the John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School at Aurora University, which will educate 200 local students about science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

But before enrollment can start for the third- to eighth-graders from West Aurora, East Aurora, Oswego and Indian Prairie school districts, many behind-the-scenes steps are being taken, including developing curriculum, training potential teachers, designing the building and raising millions of dollars.

“This has truly been a collaborative effort,” said West Aurora Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Cynthia Latimer, as she briefed the district’s school board this week about the new STEM partnership school.

Teacher training

Teachers from the four districts will be able to apply for two- or four-year positions at the STEM school — they’re basically “on loan” to the school — but they need to have extensive knowledge of their subject matter.

To prepare teachers who may want to work at the partnership school, the university has offered workshops, seminars and coursework in STEM-related subjects, giving teachers opportunities to improve their content knowledge.

For example, this summer, Aurora University is offering a skills-building course that focuses on manufacturing and engineering design. Each of the four districts can send up to eight people to the class for free, as one of the STEM school’s partners, the Caterpillar Foundation, paid for them.

Andy McCann, who teaches science and math to gifted children at West Aurora’s Jewel Middle School, was part of the team that helped write the curriculum for the summer course.

He worked with a team of teachers from the other partner districts, Aurora University faculty and representatives of corporations, laboratories and other groups such as Cabot Microelectornics, Nicor Gas and Fermilab.

McCann and the others met one a week for four months to develop the curriculum for teachers. It was helpful to have industry professionals at the table who could give a real-world, practical assessment of what students needed to know, McCann said, while the educators helped develop the best way to teach the subject matter.

“That was very helpful to hear about what (industry professionals) look for in prospective employees and compare that to what teachers tend to teach their students,” McCann said.

The team tried to incorporate problem-solving skills — instead of memorization of facts — into the curriculum, as well as industry knowledge, such how to evaluate whether a new product is “going to be viable for a wide audience or a long period of time.”

Raising money

There is still a lot to be done before the concept for the STEM school becomes a reality. While selection criteria for teachers and the school’s principal have already been drafted, the per-student tuition cost and the governance structure has yet to be worked out, said West Aurora’s Latimer.

Then there’s the issue of the funding.

So far, Aurora University has raised about $7.5 million of the $12.4 million it needs to construct the STEM partnership school, according to university spokesman Steve McFarland.

The STEM school will be a one-story extension off an existing Aurora University science hall on Gladstone Avenue. The new facility will measure about 30,000 square feet, with eight classrooms, a dedicated STEM forum and six laboratories outfitted for specific subject areas, such as biomedicine and life science, energy and manufacturing.

Much of the money raised so far has come from the John C. Dunham Estate and the Dunham Fund, which sparked the idea for this school back in 2009 through a $100,000 Challenge for Change grant.

But Aurora University is looking to raise the final $5 million — and soon — as the construction is expected to take 12 to 15 months to complete and needs to get under way soon to enroll students for a fall 2014 opening.

To do that, the university is using outside consultants, as well as university development staffers, to coordinate fundraising efforts at the local, state and federal levels.

When Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) was in town last week to promote a new federal immigration reform bill, several leaders on the STEM school project, including State Sen. Linda Holmes (D-Aurora), Aurora University President Rebecca Sherrick and Institute for Collaboration Executive Director Sherry Eagle, gathered to make their funding pitch to the senator.

Durbin encouraged the group to apply for a grant through the U.S. Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation Fund.

“We’re not far from our goal,” said Mayor Tom Weisner, who announced at his recent State of the City address that Aurora would donate $220,000 to the construction of the school from a recent court settlement. “And we want to get over that hump.”

Staff writer Jenette Sturges contributed to this report.

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