University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering


Introducing Nanotech to Teachers


Toby Weber
High school science teacher Kelly Mizell conducted environmental research during the Research Experience for Teachers program two summers ago under the direction of Professor Hanadi Rifai. Photo by Jeff Shaw.
High school science teacher Kelly Mizell conducted environmental research during the Research Experience for Teachers program two summers ago under the direction of Professor Hanadi Rifai. Photo by Jeff Shaw.

Nanotechnology research is usually practiced by those who have made a career out of working in a laboratory and reading the latest technology journal publications. A program offered by the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering, though, enables high school teachers to conduct investigations in this emerging field—and take what they learn back to their classrooms.

The Cullen College of Engineering has hosted its Research Experience for Teachers (RET) program, funded by the National Science Foundation for the past four summers. The NSF recently awarded the program a new $497,000 grant to offer its newly designed Innovations in Nanotechnology session through 2010. Fritz Claydon, interim dean of the Cullen College and a professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Julie Trenor, research and instructional assistant professor, are principal investigators on the grant. Stuart Long, the college’s associate dean for educational activities and a professor of electrical and computer engineering, is also a member of the research team, as is Shirley Yu, an associate professor of educational psychology in UH’s College of Education, whose participation is part of a growing collaboration between the two colleges.

During each of the next three summers, about 12 teachers will conduct nanotechology-based research under the direction of a Cullen College faculty member and graduate student mentor. Past nanotechnology-related research involved exploring methods of mass-producing nano-scale devices and the use of nanotechnology to diagnose specific illnesses.

The ultimate goal of the program, said Trenor, is to increase the number of young people who study engineering in college and go on to enter the technical workforce. One way to achieve this, she said, is to expose high school math and science teachers to emerging fields of science and then to train those teachers to pass on their knowledge and enthusiasm to their own students.

Applicants to the program are selected for participation based on “initiative, imagination, creativity and perseverance as indicated in the letters of recommendation.” Special consideration is given to teachers who work in schools with large percentages of groups that traditionally do not have a significant presence in the engineering fields. Reaching such groups, said Trenor, is critical to achieving higher numbers of individuals in the engineering fields.

“It’s estimated that a quarter of our country’s technical workforce will retire by 2010. In order to maintain our global competitiveness, we need to tap into all possible talent pools—including groups that are traditionally under-represented in engineering, such as women and under-represented minorities,” she said.

In addition to conducting research, the program’s participants will be trained to create lessons for their own classrooms related to nanotechnology and other engineering-related topics—an essential element of the program’s success. One enhanced element of the program is formal training in the development of nanotechnology-related teaching modules. Professor Yu will lead the program’s assessment of student-learning outcomes that result from the RET participants’ teaching modules.

The RET program’s track record shows that participants do in fact successfully incorporate what they learn in the program into their own lesson plans. One teacher who participated in an earlier version of the college’s RET program, for example, had students build and race small solar-powered vehicles. Another asked students to research, design and construct a machine capable of generating electricity from alternative energy sources such as wind, wave or solar power. Both teachers reported that their students were enthusiastic about the projects.

According to Trenor, the introduction of engineering to the participants’ classrooms is equally as important as the actual summer research experience for the teacher participants. “We aim to help the teachers gain confidence in discussing the field of engineering and engineering career options with their students, as well as encourage their students to consider the field as a college major. The program therefore has a trickle-down effect—by training a dozen or so teachers each year, we hope to ultimately impact hundreds, if not thousands, of students over the course of a teacher’s career.”