Summer School at Tech: A Research Experience for High School Teachers

By Dennis Walikainen | Published

High school teachers Karl Balke, Mandy Frantti, and Todd Waurio in the flex-fuel engine lab.
High school teachers Karl Balke, Mandy Frantti, and Todd Waurio in the flex-fuel engine lab.

High school teachers from across Michigan are doing a little summer school themselves, attending the Research Experience for Teachers on the Michigan Technological University campus. In the program, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), they are doing multi-disciplinary research in Michigan Tech’s Wood-to-Wheels forest-based biofuels transportation enterprise.

The teachers will use their research experiences to help them develop rich, classroom-relevant teaching units that incorporate multi-level engineering content into high school courses. Other teachers will have a similar opportunity for the next two summers of the three-year project.

"Our goal for this project is to provide in-depth, multidisciplinary research experiences and concurrent curriculum development activities for 21 high school teachers over a three-year project," said David Shonnard, Robbins Professor of Sustainable Materials, a chemical engineering professor who mentors the teachers' research in bioconversion to cellulosic ethanol.    

The six-week research experiences focus on three technical areas: Shonnard's bioconversion; forest plant biotechnology, mentored by Chandrashekhar Joshi, professor of plant molecular genetics; and combustion in next-generation engines, mentored by mechanical engineering professor Jeff Naber, head of Michigan Tech's Advanced Power Systems Research Center.  

The RET program includes comprehensive laboratory research activities, teaching unit development/refinement, and opportunities for knowledge integration and information sharing among the teacher participants, graduate students and faculty mentors. 
After the summer research experience, Tech faculty will visit select high schools to evaluate the effectiveness of teaching units.

The project also supports travel for the teachers to present their outcomes at regional and national conferences, and ongoing communication among teachers and Tech faculty through web enabled technology including a project web page and document sharing.
 Effectiveness of the RET experience will be assessed at each high school by surveys of student attitudes toward STEM education and likelihood of the students pursuing engineering and science careers at universities.  

Hands-on Research

One day recently, the teachers who had chosen biofuels combustion as their research area were huddled around a flex-fuel engine in the depths of a Michigan Tech building one recent morning.

“We have a very steep learning curve,” said Karl Balke, a physics teacher and robotics coach at Cass Technical High School in Detroit. “It was bewildering at first. We received some preliminary papers to read, which we diligently did. Then Dr. Naber scheduled us to observe the experiments that his graduate students are performing.”

Naber explained: “I think it is important for teachers to understand the wide range of opportunities available in engineering. Also that engineers rely on a solid fundamental education background, along with the importance of problems we are working on. Bringing this back into their respective classrooms, I hope, encourages our next generation to purse engineering and STEM careers.” 

After witnessing the initial lab tests, the high school teachers reread their homework papers. This time they understood more of the jargon, Balke said.

“We were able to return to the testing environment and ask more intelligent and informed questions about the independent and dependent variables of the experiments,” he added. “We are a lot less anxious now that we are more sure of our knowledge of what is going on.”

Mandy Frantti, a physics teacher at Munising High School, said each teacher is taking something different from the experience.

High School Curriculum Development

“I am planning to use what I develop in my applied physics class. These are students who are interested in working with instruments, equipment, etc. The course is lab-based, and some of this work here at Michigan Tech will fit well into my curriculum.”

Frantti emphasized that her goal is to bring some of the science,  technology, engineering and math (STEM) focus back to students. “Students rarely know what engineers, for example, really do,” she pointed out. “By participating in research that is happening here, we will be much better able to give students a picture of what engineering or research is all about. It is also an opportunity to learn about current research and inform students about what kinds of things are being done.”

Todd Waurio, a math teacher from nearby Calumet High School, appreciated the professional environment, as they witnessed mechanical engineering PhD students Dan Madison and Wei Chen tinkering with a Ford flex-fuel engine.

“They are keeping the engine load and engine speed constant,” Waurio said, “and adjusting ignition settings and EGR (exhaust gas recirculation) percentage, looking at the change in overall efficiency of the engine and decreasing emissions.”

The real-world educational aspects fit right into Waurio’s plans to share what he is learning with his students.

“Students want to hear about real things,” he said. “The social aspects, too. We have many logging trucks in our area, for example, that run on diesel fuel. From another lab experience here, I can teach the students about those engines and environmental impact, and they can see the bigger picture.”

Sometimes, Waurio said, students fear “government control,” but when they see that regulations are developed to help curb emissions of internal combustion engines and environmental impact, “they can understand why the guidelines are being established.”

The problem-solving aspect is also important, according to Balke.

“We are hoping to learn how engineers solve problems by acting like research engineers,” he explained. “We will take this experience back to our classrooms and communities to share with our students and demonstrate to the students that teachers can also do the things that we are trying to teach them.

“Hopefully, this will give us added ‘believability’ when we tell the students that, ‘yes, you do need to know this stuff,’” he said, “and that engineering is a most financially and creatively rewarding field of study. Engineers solve problems that matter.”

The Michigan Tech grad students and faculty will be sharing the actual results generated during the testing, so the teachers can use it in the classroom.

“I’ll use the physics in my applied physics course and the data in my math course,” Frantti said. She said she hopes be able to apply ideas of energy, work, efficiency, pressure and more to enrich her existing curriculum.

Frantti said they are also learning what the Tech faculty want to see from the high school students coming to school there.

“And, this project deals with fuels and transportation, something that is relevant to all kids,” she remarked. “Most of them either drive or hope to in the near future, and buying fuel for cars is near and dear!”

Balke sees an additional, potential payoff, too.

“Michigan Tech is a really nice university. They should think about coming here!”

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.