STEM Excellence and Leadership


"I would attend these classes next year if I could."
SEAL student

Thanks to a new Jack Kent Cooke Foundation grant, students' wishes will be fulfilled. In 2014 the Belin-Blank Center received a $500,000 grant to start the STEM Excellence and Leadership (SEAL) program for students in grades 5 through 7. This new two-year, $200,000 grant expands SEAL to students in grades 8 and 9. Designed to offer students rigorous math and science enrichment classes before and after school SEAL serves over 600 students each year.

To read the full announcement visit the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation

The STEM Excellence and Leadership program aims to empower academically able students from under-resourced rural schools.

We were selected as a STEM Excellence and Leadership program partner school. Now what?

We held a kickoff meeting at the beginning of March. The PowerPoint from the presentation is available for download.

What is STEM Excellence and Leadership?

The STEM Excellence and Leadership program is implemented in K–12 schools, designed for students in grades 6-8, and provides university-based support for math and science teachers. The goal is to discover students early and provide an intervention of specialized programming to promote their academic and social-emotional development. STEM Excellence and Leadership has two major components:

  1. an extracurricular enrichment curriculum in mathematics and science for high-ability middle school students, and
  2. professional development for teachers in the enrichment curriculum, math and science content, and gifted education.

With funding from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, the Belin-Blank Center works jointly with school districts to serve high-potential, low-income students.

Why STEM Excellence and Leadership?

Research offers extensive support regarding the positive impact of university-based programs—such as STEM Excellence and Leadership—on high-ability students. “If one reads the five lessons that can be learned from this [synthesis of research], one quickly comes to understand that there is a need to find some means to group gifted learners at times for their learning and socialization, along with a need to move them ahead in some form when their learning out-strips the curriculum they are offered” (Rogers, 2007, p. 382).

Furthermore, studies that investigate course selection among high school students found that studying algebra in 8th grade leads to students taking additional math courses in high school and increases opportunities for post-high school academics including college (Spielhagen, 2006). One goal of the STEM Excellence and Leadership program is to encourage students to enroll in algebra by 8th grade. In a STEM Excellence and Leadership pilot study, we found that students who completed the program were more likely to take algebra in grades 7 or 8 than in grade 9. Early entrance to algebra put these students on a trajectory to take calculus before college. Even though small, rural schools in Iowa are less likely to offer calculus on site, students in the pilot project had access to calculus via the Iowa Online Advanced Placement® Academy (IOAPA).

STEM Excellence and Leadership focuses on math and science in grades 6-8 as a conduit to more advanced coursework in high school. For example, Advanced Placement® courses available through IOAPA are provided at no charge to schools. Individual students who qualify for free and reduced lunch take the AP® exams at a reduced fee.

Who can participate in STEM Excellence and Leadership?

STEM Excellence and Leadership will directly serve high-ability middle-school students living in high-need, small or rural Iowa school districts. To become a STEM Excellence and Leadership school and establish a dynamic partnership with the University of Iowa’s Belin-Blank Center, schools completed an application process in January 2015. The three ranked factors that guided the selection process were: 1) high percentages of families who qualify for free and reduced lunch (FRL), 2) demographics that indicate predominately rural or small schools, and 3) a history of participation in the Iowa Online Advanced Placement® Academy (IOAPA).

What does STEM Excellence and Leadership cost?

STEM Excellence and Leadership is a program sponsored by the Belin-Blank Center with generous support from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation—each selected school receives materials, services, and financial support to support program implementation.

Why does STEM Excellence and Leadership use an extracurricular curriculum?

STEM Excellence and Leadership is an after-school math and science enrichment program. The program provides 96 hours of rigorous curricula in math and science for academically capable students from under-served, rural schools. The STEM Excellence and Leadership curriculum includes multiple units delivered over 24 weeks of the school year (four hours/week outside of the school day). The curriculum is flexible so that teachers can apply their expertise, contribute their creativity, and expand as necessary. This extracurricular program is designed to be offered over a three-year period for students in grades 6–8.

Academic extracurricular programs have many advantages for high-ability students. They provide opportunities for in-depth study and enriched learning environments where the pursuit of learning is valued (Lee, Matthews, & Olszewski-Kubilius, 2008). The positive effects of out-of-school activities on educational success for students who are at risk due to poverty have been documented (Kitano, 2007).

How does the program determine the level of academic challenge appropriate for students?

Many bright students have hit the ceiling of grade level achievement tests, limiting the usefulness of these scores for curriculum planning purposes. The results of an above-level test like those available through a talent search can tell us what concepts students are ready to learn.

For all other questions, please email