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Senior Receives Prestigious D.C. Internship for STEM Education

Justine Boecker ’17 teaches toddlers about science at the campus Child Development Center.

When Justine Boecker ’17 was in high school, she knew God was calling her to work with children. But she could also tell that she wasn’t supposed to give up her dream of becoming a physicist. So when she got to Bethel, she was determined to make a double major of physics and elementary education work.

Boecker remembers sitting down with her advisor and professor of science education, Patricia Paulson, during her freshman year. After two hours they had figured it out: If everything worked out perfectly, she could do both majors and finish in four years. “She doesn’t let things discourage or stop her,” reflects Paulson. “She keeps persevering. She’s persistent to be able to move in the direction God’s calling her. And she interacts very kindly and respectfully to make that happen.”

All those skills came into play a few months ago, when Boecker applied for an undergraduate internship with the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) to help design and revise resources for K-12 physics teachers. The internship combines physics with K-12 education and curriculum development—exactly what interests Boecker the most. “I’m really passionate about getting science in elementary schools,” Boecker says. “I see how people develop in science from preschool to high school. I see how it should work and how it can be developmentally appropriate.”

Since her freshman year at Bethel, Boecker has worked in the toddler room at the university’s Child Development Center, and for the past three years she has also worked as a birthday party coordinator at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Both jobs have provided opportunities to teach science lessons to children, adjusting the lesson to their ages—from 16 months to 12 years.

“The idea for kids is that they are more exploring science than digesting it,” Boecker explains. “I believe that kids are naturally curious and always trying to understand what’s going on around them. We need to do STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] earlier when they want to learn the world around them.”

Paulson recognizes how well Boecker understands the learning progressions for children and science, and that her understanding is a gift. Too often, STEM programs are designed for grades K-5 or grades 5-8. This can lead to misunderstandings among teachers about what should be taught and when, Paulson explains. “Justine knows what it should look like and she’ll provide support to help those things happen,” Paulson says. “She’s an ambassador now for what science education should look like in the future and she’s only going to get stronger with the AAPT internship this summer.”

The internship provides an opportunity to learn and contribute to federal education policy on physics education. Boecker will live in Washington, D.C., for 10 weeks with others in the Society of Physics Students. She will also attend AAPT’s Summer Meeting in Cincinnati and have a chance to interact directly with teachers and students.

University Professor of Physics Emeritus Richard Peterson had passed information about the internship to Boecker and wrote her a letter of recommendation for the position. “I was delighted with her application and optimistic because of Justine's background. Still there was only one slot of this sort in the U.S., and there are nationally many universities more visible in physics education than Bethel,” Peterson says. “It worked because of Justine's enthusiastic track record along with high-quality STEM education mentors at Bethel.”

Boecker counts being part of the physics department as the best part of her Bethel experience. She recalls spending many hours in help sessions during her freshman year and later in the electronics lab building circuits. In 2015, Boecker and her friend Morgan Wittner ’17 co-founded the Women in Physics and Engineering club at Bethel. The goal was to build community between women studying physics as well as with their male classmates. “There is a large possibility that you will be the only woman in your class, but the guys are really great and they don’t treat us any differently,” Boecker says. “They value us as people and as physicists.”

Boecker’s many accomplishments garnered her a 2016 STEM Scholarship from the Minnesota High Tech Association Foundation and also helped with her AAPT summer internship application. Rebecca Vieyra, K-12 program manager for AAPT, recognized Boecker’s unique qualifications and background with expertise in elementary education and physics. “It is extremely rare to find an aspiring teacher—especially in elementary education—who so whole-heartedly embraces physics,” says Vieyra. “The nation desperately needs teachers like Justine.”

After the summer internship, Boecker hopes to return to the Twin Cities and get a classroom teaching job. Eventually she would love to work as a STEM specialist in an elementary school, but those jobs are rare and she doesn’t expect to get one as a first-year teacher. Paulson has no doubt that Boecker will become a STEM specialist one day. In fact, she could see Boecker coordinating STEM education for the whole state, not just one school. 

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