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
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
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 http://www.nsf.gov
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.