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New Teacher-Training Program Brings Experiential Engineering Education to K-5 Students

It can already be a challenge explaining basic engineering and science research to the average person. Finding ways to communicate complex STEM-related topics to young children is even more difficult.

Difficult but not impossible, as the current trend away from textbook-led pedagogy to experiential learning has shown the benefits of a more "hands-on" approach to learning for students as well as their teachers.

Thanks to a new pilot program developed by engineering professors at The University of Texas at Austin, local kindergarten-through-fifth-grade teachers will learn new tips and tricks for teaching STEM topics and inspiring excitement among their students.

Launching this summer with four participants from three schools in Austin and Round Rock, Texas, a new Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) program will invite K-5 educators to the Forty Acres for seven weeks to actively engage with cutting-edge engineering and science research. The program will include a workshop aimed at finding creative ways to explain the specialized research in which they will have participated over the previous weeks to their students.

The RET program is being supported by the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) and the UT-led Industry/University Cooperative Research Center (IUCRC) for Next Generation Photovoltaics. Unlike most other RET programs across the U.S., this UT Austin program is one of the only initiatives developed strictly for pre-middle-school teachers and their students.

“When you think about it, every kindergartener is an engineer and a scientist,” said Edward Yu, electrical and computer engineering professor, director of the MRSEC, and one of three UT professors who will welcome a teacher into his lab during RET. “They are constantly asking why, digging around and wanting to know more about the world around them. Children between the ages of 5 and 12 haven’t lost that passion to learn more about the world on their own terms.”

According to Yu, the thinking behind the program, originally conceived by Brian Korgel, a chemical engineering professor in the Cockrell School, director of the IUCRC for Next Generation Photovoltaics and host to two of the four teachers coming to UT this summer to work in his lab — was to engage with enthusiastic K-5 teachers and help them learn about the research process, the scientific method and how STEM works in an active research setting. Korgel and Yu want to develop a program that enables teachers to create their own practical lessons and materials to bring back to their classrooms.

“One ambitious long-term goal of the program is to shape the way science and engineering are taught in elementary schools in Texas,” Korgel said. “Our hope is that all students are introduced to the creativity and wonder of science and engineering at an early age — and this perhaps starts with teachers who have experienced this excitement themselves.”

Another unique aspect of the program is that K-5 teachers won’t be the only ones learning from the experience. UT engineering and science graduate students, who will be helping to mentor the K-5 teachers throughout their time on campus, will also be gaining valuable insight into effective ways to teach and communicate these concepts themselves, since many graduate and Ph.D. engineering students go on to serve in faculty positions where teaching is a central part of their role. 

“We expect our graduate students to benefit greatly from this experience,” said Risa Hartman, director of outreach and education for the MRSEC. “They will work directly with K-5 educators who are already excellent teachers and pedagogical experts, and the graduate students will be able to see first-hand how important effective communication is to our ability to teach.”

The three schools participating this summer are Cunningham Elementary in Austin as well as Caldwell Heights Elementary and Neysa Callison Elementary in Round Rock, both of which are dual-language schools.

RET is the newest addition to a growing suite of educational outreach programs already offered by the Cockrell School. Other programs include Engineer Your World, a high school engineering curriculum that has been adopted by over 200 schools in 24 states across the country, as well as an innovative massive open online course, Energy 101, which offers an introductory overview of the technologies, environmental impacts and policies surrounding energy, all within a downloadable app.