A dozen secondary school teachers from several Hidalgo County school districts returned to school this summer as students learning from faculty members at The University of Texas-Pan American.
The educators were part of UT Pan American's first annual Research Experiences for Teachers in Emerging and Novel Engineering Technologies (RET-ENET) program. Sponsored by the National Science Foundation and UTPA's College of Engineering and Computer Sciences' Electrical Engineering department, the RET-ENET professional development program brought 12 math and science teachers from the La Joya, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo, McAllen and Weslaco Independent School Districts to campus to participate in research projects and develop innovate activities to take back to the classroom.
Teachers also will be responsible for training 30 of their colleagues during an annual workshop held in January, said Dr. Mounir Ben Ghalia, professor of electrical engineering and director of the RET-ENET program.
Ben Ghalia called the six-week program the "ultimate professional development" for teachers. UT Pan American was one of eight sites nationally to receive NSF funding for the program. UTPA's grant is for three years.
"This is an excellent opportunity for teachers," Ben Ghalia said. "This program allows teachers to work on cutting edge research projects in engineering, so when they go and translate that into their curriculum they can talk from an engineering point of view and get students motivated to learn the math and science, which for engineers is very important. We want the students to do well and I think the teachers are the ultimate motivators."
Because most of the students enrolled at UTPA come from the Rio Grande Valley and attended local public schools, it is important that the University develop strong relationships with area K-12 teachers and provide resources for them.
Teachers were divided into three groups which focused on different areas of research including nanotechnology, imaging, wireless sensor networks and solar power.
Josué Galván (BS '10, biology), a seventh-grade science teacher at Lorenzo De Zavala Middle School in La Joya, developed a solar car race activity for his students to teach them about kinetic and potential energy while also educating them on more environmentally friendly sources of power such as the sun.
"I want to build social awareness as well as teach them about science," Galván said. "It's a lesson that encompasses several goals that I have and it will open opportunities for me to easily transition into other lessons."
Plus, his students will enjoy being outside rather than in the classroom, he added.
Galván and fellow teachers said the program introduced them to engineering and how they can incorporate engineering principles in teaching their respective subjects. They also learned more about resources available to them through the University.
For Laura Alvarez, seventh-grade mathematics teacher at Cesar Chavez Middle School in Mission (La Joya ISD), however, the program allowed her to return to her roots in engineering. Alvarez earned a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering and a master's degree in manufacturing engineering in Mexico.
Alvarez said she likes to use real-life scenarios in her lessons to help her students better understand the material she is teaching. The project she developed for her students is to design a home that receives its energy from solar power.
"A lot of students may have the skills to be an engineer but they don't know what engineering is," she said. "They just need that little push to be interested in engineering. We want our students to be college ready."
For more information about the RET-ENET program, visit www.utpa.edu/ret or call (956) 665-2402.