Teaching the Teachers

Research Experience for Teachers Hosts Dozens for Intensive Training Each Summer

No one would argue that it takes a lot to be a teacher—years of training in pedagogy, hours of lesson planning each week, classroom management skills, deep reserves of empathy along with the ability to be firm—the list could go on and on. Now what if you’re charged with getting your students excited about STEM fields and preparing them for the higher-level course work that leads to rewarding careers in the tech sector?

Sure, you could bring in a scientist or engineer to give a guest lecture a few times a semester, but what if you wanted to bring that level of excitement and tech expertise to your classroom every day? Simple . . . just ask the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering’s faculty and its Center for K-12 STEM Education to help.
Thanks to grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the School of Engineering is designated as a Research Experience for Teachers (RET) site and has hosted dozens of teachers who come to Brooklyn over the summer to receive mentoring from professors, engage in entrepreneurship activities, and conduct inquiry-based, hands-on, engineering research as part of a program called SMARTER (Science and Mechatronics Aided Research for Teachers with an Entrepreneurship expeRience).

SMARTER participants return to their classrooms in the fall with new project ideas and practical experience in using sensors, actuators, microcontrollers and other sophisticated equipment, and their students directly benefit. How many high school kids get a chance to fully equip a model home with an Arduino, Wi-Fly, lights, and a servo garage door opener and then develop an iPhone App to control those functions? Jeffrey Bernhardt’s did during an eight-week curriculum he created after participating in SMARTER. How many can test underwater robotic vehicles in a 125-gallon tank installed right in their classrooms or investigate the material properties of soft tissue by using digital force probes and Jell-O? Other teachers have brought those creative learning opportunities to their schools after their own SMARTER sessions.

In 2014 the NSF awarded a team of professors—Nasir Memon, Justin Cappos, Vikram Kapila, and Ramesh Karri—$500,000 to develop a Research Experience for Teachers Site focused on the burgeoning field of cyber security. (Not incidentally, the new program lays the groundwork for teachers to involve their students in the School of Engineering’s annual Cyber Security Awareness Week forensics competition.)

Whether they’re studying mechatronics, cyber security, or some other topic here, teachers have the satisfaction of knowing that they’re an important part of a push to provide America's classrooms with exceptional STEM teachers. Esner has no doubt that with the help of programs like those at the School of Engineering that goal can be met. “K-12 STEM education has been a continually growing part of the culture here for over a decade,” he says. “And during that time, literally thousands of students and their teachers have been impacted by this work through dozens of programs. Professor Vikram Kapila, with 18 years of experience in our Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department, is a driving force behind making K-12 STEM a priority, and we expect it to remain so for decades to come."