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Research Experience for Middle School Teachers in Science and Engineering

by webmaster last modified 2008-09-04 12:20

STEM Careers for Girls and Minority Students


Teachers from five area middle schools were recruited to work with IMS in the research facility and the College of Applied Science (CAS) computer labs at the University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio in a collaborative initiative to introduce research being done in the IMS Center and opportunities for students in STEM careers.  Teachers were selected from two Cincinnati Public urban middle schools, two Catholic girls’ middle schools and one suburban middle school interested in promoting science and engineering curriculum to their students.  Selection was based on interest, experience, and individual availability.  The objective of the partnership was to introduce the teachers to the research being done at IMS and work together to identify ways in which the middle school teachers could introduce the concepts they learned to students at the middle schools through hands-on activities.  The long term goal was to establish a close relationship with IMS and, the middle school teachers and their schools so that teachers and students would be comfortable working with the Center on a regular basis.  Students would be kept up to date on current research in science and engineering specifically in the areas targeted by IMS and encouraged to seek careers in science and engineering.

IMS is a multi campus NSF Industry/University Cooperative Research Center with a focus on advanced prognostics and predictive maintenance technologies to achieve zero-breakdown productivity. The Center consists of research sites at University of Cincinnati, the University of Michigan and University of Missouri-Rolla, as well as two international sites (Singapore and Brazil), in partnerships with over 40 global companies.


The purpose of the RET supplement for the NSF I/UCRC for Intelligent Maintenance Systems (IMS) was to accomplish the following:

Part I

  • Introduce five teachers from different middle schools to the University and specifically the IMS department and the research being done in IMS NSF I/UCRC.
  • Provide a research experience that teachers can use to develop related curriculum to be used in their classrooms.
  • Develop a sample activity by each of the teachers to be used in the middle schools for sixth grade students based on research being done in IMS. Particular attention focused on sixth grade girls and minority students.

Part II

  • IMS researchers and middle school teachers collaborate to introduce teachers to opportunities for study in engineering and science.
  • Organize activities to engage middle school girls and minority students so that they have a better understanding of possible science and engineering careers.

Part III

  • Establish an assessment plan to measure the effectiveness of the activities offered and the teachers’ research findings.

Project Report

Nature of Teacher Activities

The middle school teachers met at the IMS Center two afternoons each week.  The first four sessions were an introduction to the Center and presentations by IMS researchers concerning their research.  Teachers received published papers selected by the center director and discussed the general concepts they decided could be used to develop curriculum for their classes.   They investigate use of sensors used in everyday experiences of their students and how IMS uses sensors to predict maintenance technologies for their client companies.  Since Lab View programming is used for the Watchdog technology used by IMS and Lego Robotics, teachers were given an opportunity to attend training sessions provided by a trainer from Lab View.  CAS supplied the labs so that the teachers could work two afternoons each week.  The final two weeks were used to work with the Lego Robots and design curriculum for a Saturday camp for sixth grade girls to be held during the autumn quarter.  Teachers were provided robots for their use and use in their classrooms as teaching tools.

The middle school teachers met twice weekly during July and August, 2007 for eight weeks, then two Saturdays during the autumn quarter and one Saturday, April 2008.  The teachers, faculty from IMS and faculty and staff from CAS met in the afternoons twice a week from 1-5PM during the July and August sessions.  Four of these weekly meeting were devoted to presentations and discussion of research projects by IMS researchers and the work they were doing.  These meetings included discussion of assigned readings which were journal articles describing the research being done in the center and selected by the IMS director.  The remaining meetings were used for the teachers to attend the Lab View training, Lego Robotics programming and challenges and to go over the material and plan activities for the day camp and their classrooms. The quick pace required them spend many individual hours working with their robots in the evenings.

Activities for girls

During these sessions the group decided that research and their experience indicated that middle school students were the target group most likely to benefit from activities that reinforced careers in science and engineering. The group decided to focus on doing two to three activities and target 6th grade girls.  Research findings indicated that this would be the year to engage girls in STEM activities and keep them engaged throughout high school to ensure more women would select STEM careers.

The activities identified were a Lego Robotics Day Camp in October and Women in Science Conference in April.  Teachers who had participated in the Girls in Science afterschool program were encouraged to attend the conference as the culminating event for the year.  Teachers who completed the RET summer program worked with faculty from CAS and the IMS director and staff to design curriculum to be used for the event and later in their classrooms. The Robotics Day Camp focused on showing the girls the different sensors and simple programming they preformed to complete their assigned challenge.

The Women in Science Conference was held in April, 2008 as the culminating activity for those middle school teachers and their students who participated in afterschool activities provided by visiting women scientists during the fall and winter quarters.  Each class was required to hold at least three after school hands on activities to be able to participate in the conference. 

Research Environment

The research environment for the IMS center is multifaceted.  The lab itself and the small center conference room became the home for the project during the eight months of the project.  The lab is located in the College of Engineering, Baldwin Hall in the center of the University of Cincinnati campus.  High school teachers, UC faculty, IMS Center staff and UC faculty met in the lab for the presentations and the discussion groups.  The conference room was used as a mini classroom for brainstorming and planning the activities.  Computer labs at the College of Applies Science were used for the Lab View and Lego Robotics instruction and events.

The October Robotics Day Camp was held in the Electrical and Computing Engineering Technology labs at the College of Applied Science (CAS). Like the Robotics Day Camp the previous year, this first activity involved sixth grade girls (28) who were invited to participate in a day long camp (8am-5PM) to learn about sensors and how they are used with the robots. Girls worked in pairs in hands on activities to learn to program the robots and begin to learn about how sensors are used.  Girls and their teachers who had participated in the camp the previous January were invited to mentor the girls participating this year. This was a key new element introduced to maintain the engagement of the girls with science and engineering activities following their participation in the first RET Robotics Day Camp.  Six participants responded from the 2006 group and agreed to serve as mentors for the October Robotics Day Camp.

The Robotics Day Camp began at 8AM with welcome and introduction to the project by electrical engineering faculty.  Next followed eight hours of hands on activities learning to program the robots in preparation for a challenge in the afternoon.  Girls worked in pairs with the middle school teachers, CAS faculty and engineering staff and student volunteers assisting.  Despite the long hours the girls were totally engaged.  The girls who were attending this Saturday camp were primarily minority girls from two inner city middle schools.  Most had not done well on the standardized math exams for their grade level but were interested in science.  Teachers and faculty and student mentors worked closely with the pairs of girls throughout the 8 hour day.  The morning was devoted to assembling the robots and programming the sensors.  Despite the offer of a full lunch break the girls ate quickly and wanted to keep working with their robots to prepare for a challenge competition.  They practiced the challenge and had the last two hours of the day for the competition.  All teams were successful in programming their robots which they insisted on naming and introducing to each other confirming the literature on the importance of relationship for girls in learning activities.  Despite concern that these students would not maintain the interest or be able to complete the activity, all were successful and excited about their achievement.  Winning teams and their schools were rewarded with robots to take back to their schools and continue assignments in their classes.

The second activity was the Women in Science Day which was held in the labs at CAS.  CAS student organizations sponsored hands on workshops for 98 sixth grade girls to learn more about STEM careers.  These girls had participated in the afterschool hands on activities during winter quarter.  Concurrent sessions allowed the girls to have a chance to experience activities in four different fields.  Student Women in Construction (SWIC) sponsored bridge building as their activity.  These young women who are Architectural Engineering Technology and Construction Science students talked about their experiences in the field and worked with the girls on a design and build bridge project using spaghetti and gum drops to construct bridges.  Electrical and Computing Engineering Technology sponsored an exercise in which the girls built electrical motors and the girls took their tiny motors home.  Women in Information Technology (WIT) were the hit of the day for the second year as they introduced Carnegie Mellon’s Alice and helped the girls create a virtual world.  Girls received official Alice buttons and a disk with the software.  The Mechanical Engineering Technology students brought their small engine cars and the new battle robot and after a presentation of careers in mechanical engineering and a demonstration of the battle bot, helped the girls race the cars around a track constructed in the campus parking lot.  This daylong conference style event represented seven middle schools, the sixth grade girls who are students there and many of their mothers.  It was a celebration of their participation in a year long program of activities. 

Participant Recruitment and Selection  

Teachers were selected based on their educational backgrounds as well as their interest in science and engineering and a commitment to working with students in after school programs.  Teachers recruited for this RET were selected from three different types of schools in the Cincinnati area; Cincinnati Public Schools which are urban public schools, Cincinnati area suburban and Cincinnati private.  Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) are urban, have limited after school funds and are primarily minority students.   The suburban schools typically have funding for after school activities and have few minority students.    Cincinnati also has a strong component of urban Catholic schools.  Teachers selected came from each of the different types of schools.

Project Evaluation and Reporting

Evaluation of the project involved interviews with the high school teachers both pre and post project.  Faculty and principle investigators reviewed progress throughout the grant.  At the beginning of the project the teachers had no previous knowledge of the IMS Center or the type of research being done.  A schedule was quickly established so that researchers in the IMS Center could share the research they are doing.  Dr Lee was present to encourage their questions and talk about the Center’s mission.  The Lab View trainer demonstrated how IMS uses the Watchdog and how the product can be used for other applications such as the Lego Robots.

Once the teachers began to understand that the research was about prognostics and smart predictive maintenance things became much less mysterious.  They identified sensors and communications as the areas to study and began to talk about the industry in their areas and how they could introduce these concepts they saw demonstrated to their own students. 

Success with Lego Robots used in activities the previous year encouraged the middle school teachers to learn some from the Lab View trainer and to work with the Lego Robots to develop activities for the students this year.

Activities were evaluated separately using pre and post surveys that were given to the students participating in the activities.  The first activity surveyed only the participants.  The April activity had strong participation by students and their mothers so both were surveyed for that activity.  Participation by girl who had been part of the previous year activities as mentors for the Robotics Day Camp provided an opportunity to keep them engaged and to demonstrate continued their interest in STEM activities.

Next Steps

The group was encouraged by the success and interest of the teachers and the students who participated this year.  It was agreed that the outreach needs to be broadened to include more teachers and students and that an international or more global focus is needed.  Preliminary ideas include the development of an international collaborative knowledge center for sharing best practices.  Discussions with teachers in China and India are possibilities.

Previous RET

In the previous RET program, teachers were introduced to one of the many research thrust areas at the IMS Center, namely the porting of prognostic algorithms into National Instruments LabVIEW, and given the opportunity to receive hands-on training and experience using the actual software and tools employed by IMS Center researchers. This includes an overview on LabVIEW and its many functions and applications, a basic tutorial on how to use LabVIEW and an outline of how LabVIEW is connected to the software that the students will be using during the robot day camp, which was also developed by National Instruments. The teachers were also given a demonstration, using the IMS Center test rig and National Instruments data acquisition hardware, how the IMS Center uses LabVIEW in its projects, and what is entailed in porting an algorithm into LabVIEW.

The very same connection between the software the teacher’s learned, and the software used by the students, was made directly to the students during the robot day camp. It was expressed to the students that one of the ultimate goals of this RET program was to encourage them to pursue further study, and possibly a career, in the fields of science and engineering. We believe that this was accomplished by allowing the students to work with software that, though in a more complex form, is currently being used in academia and in many industries for diverse applications, as well as by allowing them to accomplish goals and solve problems of a technical nature in a scientific way. The use of critical thinking, teamwork and problem-solving were integral to the goals the students were asked to accomplish.

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