A “summer camp” for local public school teachers had them learning new skills to enhance STEM education in their classrooms.
Seventeen middle and high school educators who wanted to boost their knowledge of technology participated in a six-week NSF-funded learning experience provided by the School of Computing & Information Sciences within the College of Engineering & Computing.
“I have taught for 37 years,” said George Chacko, a geometry teacher at Archimedean Middle in Kendall. “When I was in college, there was no computer.”
So Chaco and his peers – all of them experts in their subject areas, but many lacking background in computer science – took programming instruction from FIU professors and graduate students and listened to talks on cyber topics such as cloud computing, privacy and security.
“Before I got here, I had no idea on the creation of a web site and all of that – HTML, CSS, Java, all of those different languages,” said Miami Coral Park Senior High chemistry teacher Gloria Alonso-Brito. “Now I feel comfortable to start creating my own web site, which I’m going to do this year to host all of the classroom assignments, quizzes, things that I feel could help my students.”
Glades Middle School life sciences teacher Gary Hinsch found the instruction a great complement to his explorations on the web site code.org. Just as important as strengthening his computing prowess – which he said has him thinking about encouraging students to use, for example, computer modeling in their assignments – was the chance to learn more about FIU.
“Sometimes there’s a disconnect in us knowing what’s going on in universities and being able to help inform students about what their opportunities are,” said Hinsch, a Broward teacher who checked out science sites such as the Wertheim Conservatory at MMC. “I’ve had a lot of fun just walking around the campus to see what’s going on here. This just helps us be able to communicate to our students what’s available in universities.”
Aside from time in class, the teachers spent hours engaged in multidisciplinary, often highly technical research projects, either alone or collaborating in groups, under the mentorship of a faculty member or Ph.D. student. A few even worked with advanced undergraduates enrolled in a separate research program. Subjects ran the gamut from mobile sensor networks to ways to reduce risky behavior among teens engaged in social networking.
Leonardo Bobadilla, a computer science professor, found tremendous value in working with a teacher from Miami Coral Park Senior High, whose background in physics helped greatly with a continuing robotics project. “He had some really interesting insights,” Bobadilla said of Ricardo Markland, who has agreed to contribute to the research moving forward.
Alonso-Brito examined the tremendous energy requirements and carbon emissions of large computer networks known as computer-data centers. The graduate student with whom she was paired, Hasan Mahmud, had begun work on a mathematical algorithm for such energy consumption, and the two looked at ways to improve energy efficiency. Alonso-Brito conducted experiments with a Tesla Powerpack rechargeable battery and generated useable data that eventually should be published in an academic article, her name appearing as a co-author. The experience has her thinking about devising an energy-related hands-on project for her students.
“Maybe develop a procedure that we could put into effect,” she said. “It’s a lesson in terms of how can we improve the carbon emissions in the classroom.”
Turning the teachers’ lessons learned into action is what the first-time FIU program is all about. The educators received a stipend to attend as part of their professional development, and they will continue to meet on select Saturdays during the academic year to share their successes in incorporating newfound knowledge into the classroom. That’s where the big payoff comes, said Niki Pissinou, the professor who directed the program.
“By learning something new, they will be able to take that back to their students and motivate them to enter the field. The real benefit is in science advancement, workforce development and [encouraging] technology entrepreneurs, which will benefit the public.”
And to Pissinou’s great satisfaction, those who participated in the “very intense program” exhibited high levels of excitement and commitment. “What I noticed is that we do have excellent teachers,” she said. “They learned even more than I expected.”