A UT program wants to change the face of science education

Jennifer Liu

UT is paving the way for some super-smart future Longhorns.

UT-Austin has one of only twenty Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers (MRSECs) located in the U.S., six of which have been around since the 1960s. Edward Yu, director of UT’s MRSEC, said they have had huge impacts on their institutions.

“Our hope is that we can take this opportunity and really leverage that to establish something that will have a long-running and very deep impact on materials-related science and education at UT, and by extension, well beyond the University,” Yu said.

One way the center is aiming to accomplish that last part is through its Research Experiences for Teachers program that is launching this summer.

The program will be seven weeks long, and teachers participating in the program will be paired with a graduate student and a MRSEC faculty member. They will come in, work hands-on in a lab, and conduct a research project in collaboration with their graduate student and faculty member. Then, they’ll develop learning modules to bring back to their classrooms to teach science concepts in a way that illustrates real, current and applicable principles in an accessible way to their students, Yu said.

This type of program isn’t new, but the way that UT is approaching it is. Most RETs work with middle school teachers, Yu said, but UT’s focus on teachers who teach kindergarten through fifth grade.

“If you think about kindergarteners, at that age, at some level, every kid is a scientist. They’re asking, ‘Why does this happen? Why does that happen? Why is this the way it is?’” Yu said. “But somehow, between elementary school and high school, many kids kind of lose that interest and engagement with science for whatever reason.”

Risa Hartman, MSREC’s education and outreach staff director, who oversaw hiring and screening process, said that they looked for highly-motivated teachers who are passionate about science.

“There’s a pretty high learning curve (to the program), and we looked for teachers who can adapt to that situation and be in the role of learner again,” Hartman said. “They’re teachers, and they’re already used to teaching and being the expert, and in this sense, they’re flipped back into the role of learner.”

Dana Reeder, a fifth grade teacher at Callison Elementary School in Round Rock, is in this first class of teachers. She will work in Yu’s lab with Gabriel Cossio, an electrical and computer engineering Ph.D candidate at UT.

“I did a lot of educational outreach in undergrad, so I always found it really fun, interesting and rewarding to work with people who didn’t know a lot about science and teach them science,” Cossio said. “(The program) seemed like a pretty lasting way to both teach someone something about science in a fun way, and then have them take it back to their school and teach it on a bigger scale.”

Reeder found out about the program through an email and saw it as an opportunity to improve the science curriculum at her school. The problem she noticed within her first year of teaching fifth grade was that the science lessons were extremely repetitive: From first to fifth grade, the students essentially learn the same thing.

“It was almost one of those things that I missed, but I opened (the email) and read it, and it sounded really interesting because I really like science,” Reeder said. “I’ve always been a science person, and when I got to reading all the information about the program, it made me realize I had an opportunity to really improve the curriculum and the lessons that we teach at school.”

Reeder said that although her only lab experience was in college when she took chemistry and microbiology, it was that hands-on experience that made her decide she wanted to teach science.

“I am super excited about getting to be in the lab. I went and toured the lab, and it was just mind-blowing the type of equipment that they have,” Reeder said. “I’m just excited to be allowed to touch it!”

Hartman wants this program to create that same sense of enthusiasm and excitement in the elementary school students.

“This is all about bringing experiences to students that are hands-on in science and STEM, that are exciting and pique their interest, and allow them to experience science in a whole new way,” Hartman said.  “In real life, there can be many different answers and many different ways of doing things, and we want to engender those skills in students at a young age so that they’re more successful in life.