Architectural engineering receives grant for Research Experience for Teachers

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Bolstering high school students’ interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, does not happen overnight. It takes time, even years, to introduce a student to the excitement of learning and real-world career opportunities in STEM. 

A $600,000, three-year grant from the National Science Foundation — given to the Department of Architectural Engineering (AE) in partnership with the College of Education’s Center for Science and the Schools (CSATS) — will provide the needed resources for that learning and exposure through a unique program called the Building Education Research Experience for Teachers (RET) Site.

In the program, secondary science and math teachers will spend a portion of their summer break learning engineering concepts and working in a real lab setting while being mentored by Penn State AE faculty.  

Those same teachers will then develop innovative, hands-on STEM curricula as part of a professional development portion of the program to bring back to their classrooms and teach for years to come.

“We will use sustainability principles and building system engineering as an integrated and system-thinking concept for teachers: concepts that they can apply to existing STEM learning objectives and standards, rather than a topic to add to an existing curriculum,” said Somayeh Asadi, assistant professor of architectural engineering and principal investigator of the project. “This is going to add a new dimension to their teaching.”

The program consists of three, six-week sessions, offered between late June and early August, during summer 2020, 2021 and 2022. On Monday through Thursday of each week of the program, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the teachers will work side-by-side with AE faculty members on research projects related to sustainable buildings and building systems.

“We’ll cover various aspects of building sustainability including indoor air quality, lighting systems, building energy demand assessments and building energy characterization and re-tuning, among many others,” Asadi said. “It’s a foundational experience where we will teach them how to collect and analyze data, become efficient researchers, learn how to use tools and sensors, interpret results and pass on those skills to their own students in the classroom.”

Every Friday, the teachers will participate in curriculum development workshops with faculty and staff from CSATS.

“It’s our job to make sure that the skills and concepts they’re learning are aligned with preexisting learning objectives set by the state,” said Kathy Hill, director of CSATS and assistant professor of science education in the College of Education. “The experiences will allow teachers to learn about current research that is connected to the subject areas they’re tasked with teaching, and to replace traditional instructional methods with research-oriented ones that will engage students in solving interesting, real-world problems. The students will learn about current problems architectural engineers work to solve, as well as ways of thinking and approaches used today in trying to solve those problems.”

Hill and her colleagues will post an application on their website to recruit 10 STEM teachers in each community in which the program will take place: central Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The central Pennsylvania cohort will be first and its program will start in June, with Philadelphia following in 2020 and Pittsburgh in 2021.

The grant will fund research equipment for the program that the teachers can keep for their classrooms afterwards — giving local schools the opportunity to each become a living laboratory as teachers return with the knowledge to guide students in similar research projects. Teachers also will receive a stipend for participating in the program.

CSATS hopes to recruit teachers who live and work in underserved or underrepresented communities.

“Part of CSATS’ mission is to make a higher education at Penn State accessible to as many school districts as possible,” Hill said. “We are very interested in supporting rural and urban districts of underserved student populations to give them high-quality learning experiences and make STEM education more accessible.”

CSATS, which began in 2004, has a long history of leading RET programs and other similar programs, according to Matthew Johnson, assistant professor of science education and a faculty member of CSATS. He said Penn State’s first RET program was funded in 2010 by a grant from Boeing.

In testimonials Johnson has collected from past projects, teachers have said the RET program has completely, permanently changed the way they teach science and engineering to their students.

“Even if you’re a science teacher who has gone through a training program in college, you’re almost never trained to the extent of doing actual research,” Johnson said. “Their eyes are really opened to a different way of teaching.”

The high school students themselves also have seen the benefits.

“Students always express they learn a lot more, and they’re more engaged in the classroom than through the traditional labs they’ve done before,” Johnson said. “They like the responsibility of taking ownership of the work, rather than just following directions from a lab manual.”

Last Updated September 03, 2020