Ten southwestern Virginia teachers spent six weeks of their summer as students again.

The teachers were the first participants in Virginia Tech’s new Research Experiences for Teachers site on water engineering, ecology, environment, and geosciences. The program brought together water researchers from across three colleges to give the group of high-school and community-college STEM teachers hands-on experience with interdisciplinary water science.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the Research Experiences for Teachers, or RET, program gives teachers a crash course in university-level research, which they can weave into their own curricula to enrich their students’ experiences and spark interest in STEM careers.

Virginia Tech’s RET site is directed by Vinod Lohani, a professor of engineering education in the College of Engineering and the director of education and global initiatives at the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science.

“The ultimate goal is to get them excited about sharing their experiences with their students, so that their students will get excited about four-year programs,” Lohani said.

“We happen to use the context of water — and in fact most of the teachers that we recruited have some kind of water activity in their curriculum anyway. Everybody relates to water.”

The core of the program was an independent research project. Each teacher was assigned to a Virginia Tech faculty member, studying topics like how disinfectants affect the microbial populations in wastewater, tracking microplastics in an urban stream, and designing an automatic water-sampling apparatus.

In the process, the teachers were exposed to the forefront of interdisciplinary water research and the advanced technology and data science that make it possible.  

The teachers drew on their research projects to create learning modules for their students, which they’ll test out in their classrooms this year.  

They also carved out time for field trips, seminars, and trading ideas on teaching and learning strategies with their colleagues.

The connections forged over the summer didn’t end on the last day of the program. Faculty mentors will visit the teachers’ classes during the school year to observe the rollout of the new learning modules. Lohani is collaborating with one of the teachers on a research proposal, and his research group is developing a portable interactive display that the teachers can use to give their students access to real-time data and cutting-edge technology. The program provided iPads that will make it easy for the teachers to share those modules with each other and, potentially, nationwide. The group is also working together to develop a workshop for a conference next year.

There is only one other Research Experiences for Teachers site at Virginia Tech and just a few dozen in the country.

The program will run for three years; recruitment for summer 2018 will begin in December 2017 and will be open to teachers across the state.

Virginia Tech faculty who mentored visiting teachers were Bryan Brown, an associate professor of aquatic ecology; Cayelan Carey, an assistant professor of freshwater system ecology; Randy Dymond, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, who also serves as a co-principal investigator; University Distinguished Professor Marc Edwards, the Charles P. Lunsford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering; Jason He, a professor of civil and environmental engineering; Lohani; Amy Pruden, the Thomas W. Rice Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering; Madeline Schreiber, a professor of geosciences; and Kang Xia, a professor of crop and soil environmental sciences.

Rick Clark, a professor of engineering at Virginia Western Community College, also helped oversee the program. Retired Virginia Tech faculty members John Muffo and Terry Wildman served as an independent evaluator of the program and curriculum design expert, respectively.

Lohani also runs an NSF-supported Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) site on interdisciplinary water sciences; that program is one of the longest-running REU sites on campus and has served 95 undergraduates from more than 50 colleges and universities.

He says that designing and executing this research program for teachers was educational for him, too.

“It’s a learning experience for the teachers, but I’m learning, as well,” he said. “Ultimately it’s about impacting the students and how what the teachers take away from their experience gets them motivated and excited.”

The activities of the RET site were coordinated by the staff and students of Lohani’s Learning Enhanced Watershed Assessment System laboratory; the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science provided administrative support.

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