The MU College of Engineering has four National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduate sites, geared toward expanding learning opportunities for college students. But what about building interest in younger students who may decide at too early an age that engineering or related fields aren’t for them?
The solution — train the teachers.
Mizzou Engineering recently received NSF approval on a Research Experiences for Teachers site for a three-year period starting in 2019. The program will focus on neural engineering, taking its cues from the efforts of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Professor Satish Nair, who has spent years organizing camps for elementary and middle school students to foster an interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics for children who might otherwise not believe that STEM is for them.
“I’ve been working in this area for more than a decade. … In the process, I’ve found out from talking to educators that we lose kids at the elementary stage. That’s when they decide they don’t want to get into STEM subjects,” Nair explained.
“The NSF found that we lose these kids in grades four and five. That’s when they somehow decide it is not for them, particularly the girls, which bothered me a lot. I know they don’t have the background yet to make the decision at that age, so I was always curious how that came about.”
For years, Nair has run LEGO robotics camps, robotics design challenges, a rural and title-1 elementary program TECH4K5, prepared sample curricula for elementary school teachers and held various events geared toward either directly reaching students or training their teachers to instill a passion for STEM at a young age.
This new RET will target local Missouri teachers — particularly those from rural communities who potentially may have fewer STEM resources — for a six-week summer course that will help them acquire research skills, and develop curricula and learn activities that can be used in their classrooms. A statewide push for better STEM education helped spur the RET, and participants will be from communities within driving distance of Columbia. Up to 10 teachers can participate each year.
The course will allow teachers to focus on a wide variety of subjects, including neural engineering, software, robotics, control and signal processing, biology, neurobiology and more. These subjects will be taught by faculty and graduate students from the College of Engineering and the Department of Biological Sciences.
If it is successful, Nair is hopeful the elementary STEM program can be extended statewide.
“I think if this can also be a vehicle to help engage other CoE faculty in K-12 STEM programs, and I’m already looking at the growing elementary program statewide for the college,” Nair said.