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RET opens up engineering research to HS teachers

RET trainingLamar University’s Research Experience for Teachers (RET) Site program, funded by a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant and led by industrial engineering professor Weihang Zhu, has completed its first of three summer programs, which brought together 12 local high school STEM teachers June 5 to July 14 to research in advanced design and manufacturing.

The six-week program, open to all high school teachers in the STEM disciplines in Texas’ Region 5 and 4 schools, sought to advance educators’ knowledge of concepts in design and manufacturing as a means of enriching high school curriculums and meeting foundational standards set by 2013’s Texas House Bill 5. These standards required enhanced STEM contents in high school curricula as a prerequisite for graduation, detailed in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standard.

“Many high school teachers have not received sufficient training to prepare for these new course modules,” Zhu said. “It is imperative to build active long-term collaborative partnerships between high school teachers and LU engineering to bring knowledge of advanced engineering to classrooms. The RET site is a timely opportunity to recruit high school teachers to gain experience in design and manufacturing and developing course modules.”

In the mornings, teachers attended daily workshops to expand their knowledge of topics in advanced design and manufacturing before embarking on applicable research projects in the afternoons. Six LU professors, assisted by student research assistants across the engineering disciplines, each mentored two teachers on projects ranging from 3D design and 3D printing to LED modeling and robotics mechanisms. The six engineering mentors, Weihang Zhu, Xuejun Fan, Nicholas Brake, Xinyu Liu, Xianchang Li, and Jenny Zhou, each led one week of workshops as well. Zhu and Fan served as Principal Investigator and Co-Principal Investigator, respectively.

RET trainingThe group also partook in excursions to local and regional companies including Sage Automation, Schlumberger, Forterra and BASF, and worked with Lamar University curriculum specialist Dorothy Sisk, professor of teacher education, on applying their learnings to lesson plans.

“Every week, Dr. Sisk would meet with a group of teachers, broken down into three cohorts,” Zhu said. “These meetings gave the teachers some guidance on how to develop a thorough curriculum while following TEKS standard, which is not always easy.”

Participants also met for weekly Brown Bag teacher seminars to share their experiences and discuss curricula, organized by master teacher Robert Barham of Porter High School, New Caney Independent School District.

“Mr. Barham shared his past RET participation experience from Texas A&M, and provided great leadership in our RET program.” Zhu said.

On the final day of the program, the teachers presented their curriculum prototype for the fall semester to the group and received certificates.

“We don’t expect them to complete their entire curriculum development in this six-week period,” Zhu said. “The RET Site program is incredibly intensive; they have to be in workshops, carrying out research, attending excursions, and more—so they just have to have a prototype by the end of this period that they share with the group.”

The six professors acting as research mentors will visit their mentees’ classrooms to see the lesson plans being implemented. In January 2018, the teachers will present their refined curricula at an on-campus conference and submit their standards-aligned plans to teachengineering.org for other K-12 educators to access. The program assessment is led by assessment specialist Julia Yoo, associate professor of teacher education at LU.

“We plan to accept 250 attendees for this conference—all teachers in the regional area,” Zhu said. “The results of the summer program and the findings from implementing their developed high school curricula will be presented at this conference. All of the participants will present and submit their curricula as per NSF requirements.”

Two more cohorts with 12 teachers each are scheduled for summers 2018 and 2019.

RET training“We are all very happy about how smoothly this program went, and multiple teachers from this first program have expressed interest in returning next year,” Zhu said. “It was hard without previous experience to begin a program like this, but next time we will all be aware of what we need to do and what our responsibilities are to better assess the teachers’ needs and pinpoint what is they want to accomplish during their six weeks with us. I hope they will have returned home not only with financial support from their participation, but with new knowledge and a sense of real accomplishment.” 

The Research Experience for Teachers Site program is made possible through a grant from the National Science Foundation valued at $545,380. Over a three-year period, this RET Site will offer an intensive six-week summer research program to a total of 36 regional STEM high school teachers.

All participating teachers will be paid a $1000 per-week stipend for each week of the program, as well as $1800 upon completion of the implementation and evaluation activities during the following academic year. One Master Teacher, who will have a leadership role in the curriculum development process with a strong knowledge in TEKS, communication and problem solving, will receive a $1200 per-week stipend. 

For more information about the RET Site program, visit http://engineering.lamar.edu/retdesign or contact Principal Investigator Weihang Zhu at weihang.zhu@lamar.edu.