Making science matter to teenagers

Making science matter to teenagers

Gordon, Kelly

DOES ANYONE REALLY USE THIS STUFF AFTER high school? What does math and science have to do with the real world? High school students often demand answers to questions like these, but effective teaching can show students why science and engineering are relevant-before they even think of the question.

A four-year-old teacher education program at the University of Florida is helping teachers, particularly high school science teachers, to better present and incorporate “real world” science and engineering ideas into their classrooms. Materials Science & Engineering for Teachers, or MSE Teach, is a week-long summer program run by the university’s department of materials science and engineering. The goal, in part, is to help reverse a nationwide downward trend in engineering enrollments. The trend in undergraduate enrollment has been downward since 1983, according to the National Science Foundation.

“If students are going to be accountants or English teachers or any other profession, it would benefit them to have some interest and understanding of the main issues in science and engineering,” says Elliot Douglas, NISE Teach program coordinator and an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at UF.

Last summer’s program brought 18 high school and community college teachers from as far away as Washington State. Teachers typically spend four days attending morning lectures on polymers, ceramics, metals, and electronic materials, afternoon laboratories are devoted to similar topics. The last day is spent in small groups developing and presenting new lesson plans based on the week’s teachings. Lectures, and laboratories are taught primarily by UF faculty members, but there are also guest lecturers from companies such as Lucent Technologies.

“We’re trying to show teachers how subjects such as basic chemistry and engineering can relate to real world experience,” says Douglas. “We’re also looking into doing more structured lesson and lab plans, which will be easier for teachers to incorporate into existing lesson plans.” The program, which provides teachers with a travel stipend and lodging on campus, is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Michelle Carpenter-Smith, who teaches middle school math and science and a high school engineering course at the Park School in Baltimore, participated in the MSE Teach program last June.

Unlike most of the other teachers in the program, Carpenter-Smith comes from a science and engineering background. She graduated from Drexel University with a degree in materials science and engineering, and worked as an engineer for five years before becoming a teacher. She says much of the program was review for her, but that she did learn better methods of communicating principles of materials science and engineering.

She says students rarely question the relevancy of the science and engineering concepts that she is teaching because she uses a very hands-on approach. “By teaching this way students can see right away in lab how the concepts are going to be used,” she says.

She has already added an idea that was developed with other teachers at MSE Teach to her middle school lesson plans: a laboratory exercise about the Archimedes principle. Using a polymer clay, students must build a boat that not only floats, but also carries a certain amount of weight. Students also have to stay within cost restraints and come UP with a cost-to.strength ratio. Through this project, students learn about buoyancy and density, and also how issues of cost and strength play against each other in real industrial situations.

Sally Sanders, a high school chemistry and math teacher at Lincoln High School in Florida, says the NISE Teach program got her so interested in materials science she is considering pursuing a graduate degree in the field. Even if only a few of their teenage students are as interested in materials science and engineering as Sanders and Carpenter-Smith are, engineering enrollment might be headed for an upswing.

For more information about MSE Teach see: www. inse.ufl.edu/teach.

Copyright American Society for Engineering Education Jan 2000

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