Thursday, July 2, 2009

Area Teachers Go To School

If you think area high school math and science teachers are basking in summer fun with no thought of the classroom, you’ve not met the nine teachers who are laboring and learning over research at Tennessee Tech University. They’ve become exceptional students themselves under the direction of TTU’s Mohamed Abdelrahman and colleagues who are putting teachers of science and mathematics through the paces as researchers.

“Our main theme is to have teachers become investigators and benefit from the full experience of research,” said Abdelrahman. “Understanding the full process means they experience the full excitement that engineering can bring to their classrooms.”

RETainUS, or Research Experience for Teachers in Manufacturing for Competitiveness in the United States, offers select teachers a chance to see how different disciplines interact to address real world engineering problems with focus on manufacturing.

“Many students do not realize how fertile the manufacturing field is with fulfilling and challenging career opportunities,” Abdelrahman said. “This program aims to change this perception starting with teachers and, in turn, their students.”

But participants, including White County High School’s Angela McCulley (pictured above), had little idea of the demands the program would command of them.
“When we found out what was expected of us the first week, our stress level shot through the roof,” McCulley said.

Cookeville High School science teacher Lynn Thurber says she didn’t expect the pressure put on her to come up with a research question and plan.

“But now I see how the expectation was good,” Thurber said. “How can I teach a student to design an engineering process when I’ve never done it, when I’ve never studied it? I now have an actual feel for what goes on in engineering so that I can bring back that excitement into my classroom.”

During the six-week program, participants find themselves immersed in the research and development process through hands-on experience and real world problems that relate to conventional manufacturing processes such as metalcasting, rapid prototyping, nanomaterials, fuel cells and special coating materials, and enabling technologies such as intelligent optimization.
Abdelrahman says it is a sacrifice of time and a true commitment by these teachers to complete the program, but the benefits exponentially reach into area schools where STEM education needs a boost.

“These teachers deserve all the praise and appreciation from all of us for serving as models for teachers willing to take the extra effort to better educate the next generation,” said Abdelrahman.

Funded by the National Science Foundation and supported by TTU’s Center for Manufacturing Research, the program offers funding for classroom equipment and supplies and stipends for completing the program.

Bridgett Pugh of Monterey High School says hands-on activities are essential to capturing student interest, but they almost always come with a personal price tag.

“If you do anything extra that is fun or new or exciting in science, you pay for it out of your pocket,” Pugh said. “I’m here because this program allows me to buy equipment and other resources for my classroom that I wouldn’t have.”

The capstone benefit is the Legacy Cycle of teaching that the program prepares teachers to implement in their schools. The Legacy Cycle is a teaching module where students are given a big challenge and their task is to decide what education and information is needed to address the challenge. Teachers charge students with going out and finding information on their own and coming back to them with questions.

“When the students come back to me, I give them lesson plans based on their needs,” Virginia Mayfield, a Monterey High School math teacher, said. “It all leads to a public phase where students have to present and validate their findings to the class.”

Anthony Giest of Gordonsville High School says he’s been in a lot of group projects as a teacher and this is the best he’s ever experienced because he gained an in-depth understanding of research.

“In my classroom, I can talk about my research, specifically what I’ve done,” said Geist. “I’ve got my Gordonsville tiger cast sitting on my desk and I can say ‘When I was doing the research I ran into this problem. Through this program you’ve experienced enough that you can talk with passion about what goes on in the research field. That part of the teaching goes beyond the Legacy cycle to all your teaching."

Both Mayfield and Geist participated in the program’s pilot run last year; they were so impressed that they applied to take part again this summer. Mayfield agrees that the engineering experience makes her a better teacher.

“So many times students don’t go in to fields because they are scared of them,” said Mayfield. “What I learn here I can take back, and I can pump those kids up about their futures.”

McCulley says the biggest hurdle with many students is to create a learning environment that’s fun and interesting so that they will even consider going to college and then pursue STEM fields.

“The easiest way to do that is with science hands-on activities,” she said. “If they know that they can have a career that they enjoy, they will start considering going to college and working in one of these fields.”

This year’s participants are McCulley, Thurber, Pugh, Mayfield, Cindy Stowers, Joe Harris, Josh Price, Rachel Sparkman and Robert Sircy.

Because RETainUS is a three-year project, more Upper Cumberland teachers will have an opportunity to participate during Summer 2010 and 2011. Abdelrahman says this is a collaborative effort built on the talents and contributions of many TTU faculty, including co-director Holly Anthony, research training mentor Sally Pardue and engineering research project mentors Joe Biernacki, Ken Currie, Holly Stretz, Cynthia Rice-York, Dalton York and Ying Zhang.