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Teaching Toolbox
Introducing Teachers to the Lab

- By Ted Okiishi   

A Novel Experiment

K-12 teachers are pairing up with engineering researchers, and both sides are benefiting from the results.

A common concern about the engineering workforce of the future is that not enough bright students are electing to enter engineering education programs. And a number of those who do, don't stay. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, engineering education seems designed to drive students away. The article provoked an angry response from a number of engineers, who blamed poor working conditions of practicing engineers for the decline in engineering graduates. Whatever the actual reasons are for the drop in engineering enrollment since the 1980s and anticipated future shortage of engineers, engineering faculty researchers can make a difference in encouraging more students to consider engineering as a course of study and career.

A number of initiatives are underway to get pre-college students excited about engineering and to get—and keep—them in engineering programs. Efforts are also being made to attract more women and other minorities to the field. Toward that end, a program launched recently by NSF enables K-12 teachers of science and math to participate in education and research project work in a university setting. The feedback has been positive. One participant is now able to connect the study of queuing theory with related experiments conducted in the school cafeteria. Another is able to give her students a more realistic idea of what academic research entails.

Grants for this purpose are provided to NSF grantees as supplements to their project funding or as site awards through the Research Experience for Teachers (RET) program. These grants enable K-12 teachers to partner with university researchers—and their graduate students—on NSF projects for significant periods
of time.

Teachers participating in RET learn about the many exciting innovations going on in engineering research, which they're later able to use in their classrooms, and establish valuable networks with university faculty members in their fields of interest. Most of the teachers say they'd like to repeat the program. In August, 75 RET sponsored teachers praised the program to invited guests from the NSF, Congress, and the White House in Washington, D.C. More events like this are likely in the future as participation levels grow.

NSF grantees who have participated in RET also have benefited in several ways. One was happy for the opportunity to interact closely with two physics teachers at a local high school. He felt so positive about the experience that he urged a faculty colleague to host the same two teachers next summer under RET sponsorship. Another grantee, senior research scientist Colin Horwitz of Carnegie Mellon, says, "It was a tremendous learning experience for me to interact with them (the teachers), and I believe they benefited greatly from the interactions with our research group. I believe we gave them insights into how to bring the world of cutting-edge science to their classrooms and to stimulate their students to see what is out there for them if they get a good education. They provided us with useful data, and I anticipate that they will be co-authors on papers published from our group in peer-reviewed journals. We are also working on mechanisms for bringing experiments from CMU to the schools. I look forward to visiting their classes."

Bringing eager K-12 teachers into a research program can enrich it considerably because of their diverse thinking, culture, work experience, and maturity. And the teachers are likely to take away some valuable insights about engineers,
engineering, and engineering education. Having well-informed champions in the K-12 system is a plus for us. Imagine the impact such a program might have had on your science and math teachers (and you) had it existed when you were in grade school, middle school, or high school.

To learn more about the RET program, go to the NSF homepage at and search for entries under "RET".


Ted Okiishi is the associate dean of engineering at Iowa State University
and chair of the ASEE Engineering Research Council board of directors.
He can be reached at

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