SURF Education and Outreach efforts boosted by $25,000 grant

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A grant from the John T. Vucurevich Foundation will provide stipends and materials for South Dakota educators attending Education and Outreach (E&O) professional development programming. Here, Deb Wolf, former director of E&O, leads a discussion at Deep Talks on Jan. 9, 2020. Photo courtesy Nick Hubbard


LEAD, SD— This summer, 55 educators will come together to enhance STEM education in the state of South Dakota.

“We will be doing science learning together, all across the state, helping teachers build their confidence and create great science learning experiences in their classrooms,” said Nicol Reiner, director of the Education and Outreach (E&O) team at Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF).

Reiner is describing the E&O team’s weeklong professional development program for K-12 educators, in partnership with Black Hills State University (BHSU). For Reiner’s team, this year focuses on removing barriers that may hinder educators from participating in professional development.

E&O’s program is free to attend, but attendees often incur out-of-pocket expenses, such as transportation, lodging and child care. And some educators have personal responsibilities that hinder them from traveling across the state to attend the program at BHSU. But this year, with the support of key partners, the E&O team is dismantling those barriers.

In 2021, the E&O team received a $25,000 grant from the John T. Vucurevich Foundation to provide stipends and materials for every educator in attendance.

“We are deeply grateful for the support and partnership the John T. Vucurevich Foundation has offered to the SURF Foundation by supporting this professional development series,” said Staci Miller, director of the SURF Foundation. “Each year, the professional development offered by the E&O team paves the way for future generations of scientists and engineers.”

In addition to stipends and materials, educators have the choice to join virtually or attend in-person.

“This is really an accessibility issue,” Reiner said. “Some teachers are comfortable being face to face with our COVID-19 safety protocols. Some teachers are more comfortable staying home. And not everyone can travel across the state for a weeklong workshop. Providing a virtual component is very important to us.”

In addition to providing the program’s location and lodging to educators, BHSU is offering graduate credits at a significantly reduced rate upon completion of the program.

“We are always looking to remove barriers to professional development,” Reiner said. “Whether that be providing a virtual component for those who cannot attend in person, providing lodging for in-person attendees or providing a stipend for educators—we want to make sure educators are getting the continuing support they need.”

The professional development will focus on South Dakota’s science standards, which emphasize three-dimensional learning. Three-dimensional (3-D) learning shifts science education from rote memorization to thinking like a scientist, investigating scientific concepts and solving problems.


Julie Dahl, SURF science education specialist, leads a discussion at Deep Talks on Jan. 9, 2020. Photo by Nick Hubbard


The educational concepts directly leverage the science taking place at SURF. Educators can use the real phenomena and unsolved questions being explored underground to generate student interest, allowing student questions to drive the learning, as they master the science standards.

For past attendees, these concepts have transformed their approach to lesson planning.

“I saw this opportunity and I jumped on it. I had some ‘Aha!’ moments as I was going through that professional development,” said Darin Newton, a middle school science instructor in Belle Fourche, who now helps facilitate E&O professional development programs.

Aaron Odegaard, a seventh-grade life science and biology teacher at Stagebarn Middle School in Summerset, attended the program in 2019. “Last summer’s program introduced the concept of 3-D learning, and this year is really starting to show us how to do it, giving us specific strategies and building the confidence to be able to use them in the classroom,” Odegaard said.

Spaces for the 2021 teacher professional development program filled quickly. “Within a week of advertising this program, we had filled every spot,” Reiner said.

To provide more professional development opportunities for educators, E&O is partnering with the South Dakota EPSCoR and the South Dakota Department of Education this summer.

“There is not a single week this summer when our E&O team is not supporting a professional development program and embedding the science of SURF into support for teachers,” Reiner said. “The specific topic might change, but we will be providing that support every single week, this entire summer.”

The SURF Foundation supports Scientists of the Future, striving to inspire and empower our youth in the pursuit of futures in STEM. Click here to learn more or to make a donation to the SURF Foundation. 

The Education and Outreach program is a collaborative partnership between Sanford Underground Research Facility and Black Hills State University. Our goal is to use the excitement and promise of deep underground science and engineering to inspire and engage students, educators and the wider community through a variety of programming.

Sanford Lab is operated by the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority (SDSTA) with funding from the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. Our mission is to advance world class science and inspire learning across generations. Visit Sanford Lab at

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