LAWRENCE — High school teachers from across Kansas are gathered at the University of Kansas for six weeks this summer to participate in research and learn skills they’ll take back to their classrooms this fall.
The School of Engineering’s Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis (CEBC) has run the Research Experience for Teachers (RET) annual program since 2006. Ten teachers — including one from Oklahoma — are participating this year.
"This is a really unusual and appreciated opportunity,” said Anne Krebs, a chemistry and physics teacher at Lansing High School in Lansing.
Edward Peltier, professor of environmental engineering, and Claudia Bode, CEBC education director, lead the latest version of the RET program, called ECO-WATER. The teachers, who specialize in math and science research, participate in water-themed engineering research. At the end of the program, participants are expected to take their new skills and translate them into lesson plans and learning opportunities. They will also create “toolkits” that can be used by other high school teachers who haven’t taken the program.
“The overall goal is to bring in high school-level educators so they can learn more about engineering and be better prepared to teach their students about engineering,” Bode said. “It's professional development for teachers — they get to do research in a real lab at KU and experience what that's like, with everything that involves. Then they translate that experience into a lesson to take back to their students.”
The university also benefits, Bode said, when participants help advance ongoing research by KU faculty members.
“We've had teachers whose work contributed to peer-reviewed publications,” she said.
But the bigger influence is in Kansas schools: Bode estimates that for every teacher who goes through the RET program, 50 high school students are reached annually.
Krebs is working with Kevin Leonard, associate professor of chemical & petroleum engineering, on comparing different methods of splitting water molecules.
“When we leave, the research will continue on, but it’s nice to know that we've contributed a small chunk to advance the project during our six weeks at KU,” she said.
The process can be challenging for the teachers, who don’t often have the opportunity to conduct advanced laboratory work.
“You think you're going to walk in and make a big discovery on the first or second day,” Bode said. “It's not like that — there's a lot of problem-solving. The experience gives teachers more empathy for what their students go through.”
Bode said the RET program is becoming more important as high schools increasingly emphasize STEM education.
“Engineering is something next-generation science standards are pushing for younger students to engage with, but engineering is not typically something you engage with until you get to college,” she said.
Indeed, Krebs will add an “Intro to Engineering” class to her list of responsibilities this fall at Lansing High School. Participation in the RET program, she said, was a “timely thing.”
“We're trying to incorporate the problem-solving of engineering processes into the high school classroom,” she said.
Krebs hopes the lessons she learns from the program will do more than help her educate students — she also wants to inspire them.
“We can get excited about it and introduce students to the process,” she said. “This gets students into exploring problems from a different perspective and reminds them why science is neat. They don't necessarily believe us if we just say it.”
And Krebs said there’s another perk to the program: the ability to spend a summer networking with other high school STEM teachers, exchanging ideas and learning from each other.
“We anticipated exchanging ideas, but I don't think we anticipated just how much we would appreciate it,” she said. “We don't get an opportunity to do that on a regular basis. It's very rewarding.”
The RET program is funded with a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. It is the third NSF federal grant to fund the program since it started with just two teachers in 2006.
“It's just really exciting to see the program grow,” Bode said.
The 2019 program will run through July 12.
Photo: Anne Krebs, a teacher at Lansing High School in Lansing, works on a research project through the Research Experience for Teachers Program at the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis.