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Teachers get science lessons of their own this summer

July 21, 2014 - By Kim Delker

K-12 teachers who are taking part in the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Teachers program got a crash course July 16 in Arduinos and how they can incorporate the small microcontrollers into lessons for their science students.

Bruce Milne, a UNM professor of biology and the founder of UNM’s sustainability studies program, provided an overview of the technology needed to get started. He calls Arduinos "accessible to everyone” and “a transformative way to teach STEM disciplines."

Arduinos are inexpensive (about $25) and very customizable to a wide variety of projects. With some basic electronics, programming, and mechanics knowledge, the sky is the limit as to what kinds of data the device can collect. Milne said he uses the technology in sustainable garden projects, such as tracking growing degree days and measuring ambient air temperature and ambient light.

In addition to the session on Arduinos, teachers in the program have attended sessions this summer at the Center for High Technology Materials, where they were taken through the steps of growing, patterning and testing a solar cell; the ArtsLab; the School of Architecture and Planning's "FabLab;" a visit to the Museum of Southwestern Biology; two engineering ethics workshops; and weekly sessions on project-based learning.

The goal of Research Experience for Teachers is to give elementary through high school teachers the opportunity to conduct engineering research so they can impart the sense of discovery and creativity involved in solving pressing and socially relevant problems to their students. Based on their research experience, the teachers will create lesson plans and submit them to the TeachEngineering website.

Stefi Weisburd, School of Engineering outreach and education manager, said this summer the teaching units are couched in an overarching theme of how to respond to climate change. Many of the teachers are working in labs concerned with developing renewable and clean energy sources, as well as ways to conserve energy through more efficient lighting.

"Experiencing the practice of engineering is an added benefit, especially as engineering is incorporated into national science standards," Weisburd said.

Teachers in the program say they — and their students — are benefitting from what they are learning while at UNM.

Anita Nugent, who teaches physics and forensic science classes at Santa Fe High School, has been a teacher for 51 years. She is incorporating lessons in micro- and nanotechnology into her classes — something she says is typically not covered in textbooks, but is vital for them to learn.

"If we thought the Industrial Revolution changed the world, this will change it more," she said.

And since her training years ago didn't cover such topics, programs like RET help her keep up with the latest technology. She's planning several lessons for students in nanotechnology that she will incorporate throughout the year. She's also planning to discuss the ethics of nanotechnology — another topic not covered in textbooks.

For Tomas Atencio-Pacheco, a teacher at Health Leadership High School in Albuquerque, the RET program has helped demystify engineering — for him and his students.

"The experience has changed my perspective on engineering," he said. "It's taken the veil off. I had thought it was too advanced for students, but now I realize it can give students the opportunity to study nature in an authentic way."

It's also helping him teach better problem-solving techniques.

"I've changed how I want them to view the labs," he said. "I want them not just to solve problems, but to have a grasp of all the technologies available to solve problems."

Earlier this year, the teachers traveled to Mesa del Sol to get an up-close look at the ASUNM Solar Decathlon house with Olga Lavrova, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and faculty advisor to Team ASUNM. In addition, teachers toured the nearby PNM Prosperity facility. The PNM site is the first solar storage installation in the country to be fully integrated with a utility's smart grid.

Research Experience for Teachers is part of a $500,000, three-year National Science Foundation Research Experience for Teachers grant, which began in summer 2013. Principal investigator on the grant is Chuck Fleddermann, School of Engineering associate dean for academics and professor of electrical and computer engineering. Co-PI is Vanessa Svihla, an assistant professor of education.

Teachers from Santa Fe, Las Cruces, Gallup, Fort Wingate, and Albuquerque are a part of the program.