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Multi-Million Dollar NSF Grant to Fund Science Enrichment Program

By: 

Erin D. McKenzie

University of Houston researchers received a nearly $3 million grant this month to support an initiative aimed not only at enriching the education of university graduate students, but engaging area schoolchildren and teachers in physical sciences.

Dubbed Innovations in Nanotechnology and NanoSciences, the program is intended to address a lack of proficiency in the sciences among middle and high school students—a growing trend in the United States—by helping educators connect with their students. And the program, in part, will use UH graduate students to do so — challenging them to learn ways to articulate their complex areas of study to a larger audience.

Launching this summer, the program will pair these graduate students from the UH Cullen College of Engineering with teachers from schools across the Greater Houston area to teach nanotechnology and nanoscience topics using examples from popular culture.

“Graduate students will partner with teachers from area schools to target major shortcomings of the national education system,” said Pradeep Sharma, Bill D. Cook Chair Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, speaking to multiple studies showing primary and secondary school children as well as their teachers lack interest and skills in science. “We hope the program will infuse new energy, and talent, fresh ideas and dedicated resources to inculcate a lifelong enthusiasm, love and knowledge of physical sciences in GK-12 classrooms via novel applications of nanotechnology and nanosciences.”

Sharma is named the lead investigator on the five-year grant from the National Science Foundation. He is partnering with co-investigators Fritz Claydon, associate dean for administration and research; Stuart Long, professor of electrical and computer engineering; Eugene Chiappetta, professor of science education and Hanadi Rifai, professor of civil and environmental engineering.

These professors, several of whom are internationally recognized in nanotechnology and nanosciences, have selected nine graduate students from the college who will work with faculty in the Cullen College and the College of Natural Science to match them with teachers in classrooms at schools in the Houston, Dickinson and Galena Park independent school districts as well as the University of Houston Charter School. In these classrooms, graduate students will be tasked with articulating complex ideas related to nanotechnology and nanosciences to youth using a hands-on, custom designed Knowledge, Applications, Research and Technology (KART) approach.

“The KART concept goes beyond information delivery and integrates, knowledge, applications, research and technology in nanotechnology and nanoscience to generate an atmosphere of excitement within the K-12 learning community,” Sharma said. “KART will ensure the development and modernization of the science knowledge base of the involved teachers and will infuse much needed zest for the physical sciences in middle and high school students.”

The approach will challenge graduate students to renew interest in science using, for example, the Harry Potter novel series. One such demonstration will use electromagnetism to explore the idea of creating the invisibility cloak from the book.

“The graduate fellow will discuss the feasibility of creating an invisibility cloak via discussion of the electromagnetic spectrum and a new class of nanotechnology based on meta-materials,” Sharma said. “Electrical resistance, or the lack of it, can be motivated by levitation scenarios in Harry Potter. A simple demonstration of magnetic levitation is planned to illustrate the numerous flying apparatus — broomsticks, cars and buses — seen in Harry Potter.”

Due to the commitment necessary by these graduate students — as much as 15 hours a week —only individuals with lighter class loads in at least their second year of study will be considered for the program.

Before they can participate, each much successfully complete a four-week summer certification course aiding them in planning and teaching the designated curriculum. The course will also familiarize them with State of Texas science standards.

“The program could have a lasting impact on graduate students,” said Claydon. “It will dramatically improve their communication skills and offer them a deeper understanding of their own research field. It will serve as a real enrichment to these graduate students’ UH education.”

Just as the graduate students, teachers selected for the program will be brought up to speed on nanoscience topics through an annual short course taught by the investigators and other UH faculty.

“The courses will work to establish a common language between the teachers and their paired graduate students,” Claydon said. “We hope the program will allow them to learn skills that allow them to transfer excitement about science and engineering to their students.”

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