Scott, Johansen give Atlanta-area teachers concrete ways to make science, engineering exciting for their students

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Teachers from metro Atlanta's Gwinnett County test a concrete wall for quality, measuring the time it takes a signal to travel through the wall at different points. It was one of several demonstrations organized by associate professor David Scott, left, to illustrate the importance of basic math skills in his engineering research. The teachers spent the day at Georgia Tech as part of a professional development program to boost their math and science skills. (Photo by Joshua Stewart.)

By Laura Mast

Kids don’t get hooked on science, technology, engineering or mathematics in school for any number of reasons.

Some simply aren’t exposed to what are known as the STEM fields, at least not in an appealing way. The subjects can be intimidating. And others envision a lifetime “nerd” label: pocket protector, dorky glasses, trapped behind a computer all day.

School of Civil and Environmental Engineering associate professor David Scott aims to shake this up — not by stepping into an elementary school classroom, but by working with the teachers who do.

Scott spent two Fridays this month taking groups of elementary teachers through the School’s Structural Engineering and Materials Lab and showing them how math and science play an important role in the world.

“I’m not the right person to teach kindergarteners. But even if I can’t do that, I can still contribute,” Scott said. “I can provide adults with some things in their toolbox, real-world examples, that they can then use as the filter between what I know and what the students are learning.”

The schoolteachers, mostly from metro Atlanta’s Gwinnett County, are participating in a 18-month federally funded STEM certification program called the Math and Science Partnership. The program connects public schools to colleges and universities to deepen the teachers’ content knowledge. Georgia Tech’s Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics, and Computing (CEISMC) has been working with 90 teachers from the district, including these intensive summer sessions.

Civil engineering Ph.D. student Chloe Johansen spent a week working with one of the teacher groups, helping lead astronomy and geology activities. That included lessons on earthquakes, structural engineering, and resonance, which Johansen demonstrated with a small shake table and K’NEX building toys.

“The program was a valuable learning experience for the middle school teachers, as well as Hommood Alrowais and me, the graduate students involved,” Johansen said. “I learned lots about astronomy and a valuable perspective on what these teachers experience every day.”

For the teachers, the engineering demonstrations helped draw connections between the math and science lessons they teach their students and how scientists and engineers apply those skills.

A teacher uses her cell phone to record a strength test of a concrete cylinder. Associate professor David Scott, in background, made several different test cylinders with different ratios of water to illustrate the importance of basic math skills in real-life applications. In this case, adding too much water to the concrete vastly decreases its strength. (Photo by Joshua Stewart.)

“[My goals were] to become a ‘content expert’ for my students, outside of algebra,” said Chris Morris, a fifth-grade teacher at Lawrenceville Elementary. “Now that I’ve [had] a refresher on basic math — math I haven’t seen in years — my classes will be stronger.”

The groups’ field trips played a dramatic role in reinforcing the applications of strong math basics as well.

“We show them real-world examples of problems and issues that we deal with as researchers and in the engineering community that are dependent upon a reasonable level of competency in basic math,” Scott said.

“To see the gleam go off in somebody’s eyes, to see them getting exciting about these things, to help them understand, is really special,” Scott said.