Summer 2015: An Immersive Research Experience…The After Party

Earlier this summer I wrote about a research experience that I was taking part in: SMARTER, an RET instituted by NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering. The experience was profound. Here’s a recap of my takeaways.

Composite material

  • Firstly, a learned a good deal about composite materials. Going into the program, I had the slightest idea what a composite material even was. During orientation my curiosity was stoked by Nikhil Gupta, my research mentor, about his area of expertise (primarily because he mentioned that his research impacts the U.S. military). But other than that spark, I had no real foundation for where to start the research. Naturally, this equates to an information overload and, in the end, a substantial amount of learning on my end. Part of me wished my research tied in closer to what I teach everyday, but the other part of me understands that being forced into foreign territory was exactly what I needed.

Research Results Chart

  • My partner and I decided to make repurposing waste materials the centerpiece of the research. Specifically, we were interested in the impact that fly ash, human hair, and glass microspheres have when integrated with cement. What did we learn? The results were somewhat inconclusive, but we did discover an ideal proportion of fly ash to glass microspheres that would optimize the peak stress (i.e. the point at which the material begins to break down) of the composition. We expected that the human hair would have a greater impact on the overall strength of all the composites, but the results were fairly mixed.
  • A facet of the experience that surprised me was the collaboration that it involved. When you work with a perfect stranger for an extended period of time, things can get rocky. I didn’t learn to appreciate my partner’s perspective until later in the research; she taught me a ton about seeing things with a starkly different outlook and how this is necessary for the team to succeed. It also pushed me to open my mind and connect with ideas that I initially found hard to accept. I was reminded that everyone has strengths that are both unique and amazing…and that productivity sometimes hinges on the ability to focus on those strengths.
  •  The most significant impact of the experience was the uplifting inspiration it provided me. Before SMARTER, I had a deep-rooted desire to grow as a professional, but I had no ambition to further my education or seek a higher level of certification. But after a brief conversation with a Ph.D candidate who was aiding in our analysis, I left with an unexpected desire to push myself further than I ever thought I would. It was his laudable attitude coupled with the overall atmosphere at the university that left me wanting much more than just to complete my research and get back to teaching.
  • What does this mean? It means that one day I will 1) earn National Board Certification and 2) obtain a doctorate in mathematics education. Yup. I am now eagerly awaiting these immense challenges in the years to come. Thanks Eduardo.

This is my evolution thanks to SMARTER. My students, school community and myself are all much better because of it.

 

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Summer 2015: An immersive research experience

NYU Logo

This past week I began a summer-long professional development with NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering called RET (Research Experience for Teachers).

The RET program pairs up STEM teachers and engineers for a six-week collaboration experience during the summer. The engineers at NYU-Poly work hand-in-hand with K-12 teachers (like me) to conduct ongoing research in their discipline. I will write a paper summarizing my research, present my findings, and create a Teach Engineering lesson plan related to my RET experience [UPDATE 3/31/16: My lesson has been published.]. In other words, I will do everything a full-blown researcher would do (minus the lesson plan).

I haven’t finalized my research topic just yet, but I do know that I am partnering with Dr. Nikhil Gupta. He is well-known in the United States for his work with composite materials.

I’ve met Phil Cook, an awesome dude, through the program. Here’s his reflection on his experience thus far.

I’ll get another post up after RET is complete, but here are a few things that I’m most looking forward to:

  1. Can-Do. The director of the program mentioned that he is regularly inspired by what he calls the “can-do” attitude that all engineers embody as part of their ongoing work. I can relate to this. There will be countless setbacks and obstacles that arise, but the objective never changes: understand the problem, focus on solutions, learn. I’m expecting to struggle quite a bit during RET, so I hope to stay motivated and maintain a “can-do” attitude throughout. I remember my UBI experience.
  2. Research. Other than some minimal, unstructured research that was mandated for graduate school, I’ve conducted no formalized research. For this reason, I’m especially intrigued by this opportunity to not only learn about Dr. Gupta’s research, but to experience the process personally. I hear and read about research all the time, but this time I’ll actually be the one conducting it. I find that incredibly empowering. I am fully anticipating the roller coaster that will be investigation, frustration, and discovery.
  3. Impact. RET is actually intimidating and even scary on a certain level. The workload will be serious. The hours long. But I feel like this is what professional development should be. It should push me out of my comfort zone. How else will I improve? The breadth and depth of this immersive experience promises to provide high levels of enrichment, of which I’ve never experienced before. It will be interesting to see how all this work manifests itself in my career and what I do with my students.

With all that said, there is a bigger picture.

Before I was accepted into RET, I have taken more and more interest in research. I realized this because I have so many questions. Those questions cause me to want answers, even if they’re partial or incomplete. Research is a structured, unbiased way to do that. Anyways, I have a lofty goal to be part of a team of teachers and/or educational team that researches teaching, learning, and/or schools. It’s just a dream at this point and I have the slightest idea of how I would make it happen. I’m sure I’ll pick up some cues from this experience with NYU. Maybe I can use MfA as an outlet for this? Maybe I can find a some sort of RET related to education?

To be continued…

 

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Another one added to the toolbox

Just a quick post on a strategy I recently used so I don’t forget to use it again in the future.

We were working on law of sines (LOS) in trig. We spent one day deriving the law of sines and one day solving basic triangles. At this point, about 30% of the class was ready to move on to complex LOS applications (the next lesson) while the rest of the class needed more practice solving triangles using LOS. Without planning it all the way through, here’s what I decided to do.

The next day I placed students that were ready for the application questions together in two small groups. Let’s call this the “advanced” students. I provided them with instructions, materials, and let them go explore the problems in their groups. I provided minimal scaffolding. For the most part they were able to work their way through the first few problems, which was what I hoped for.

As for the students that needed reinforcement and more practice, I placed them together in a few groups and provided heavy scaffolding and detailed attention to their needs. I’ll call these the “developing” students. I floated, sat and worked with them individually, and clarified any misconceptions that came up. By the end of the period, I was pretty confident that almost all of them could solve a triangle using LOS.

The following day, I brought the groups back together by using the advanced students to teach the developing students the complex LOS problems that they had already solved. I placed 1-2 advanced members with 2-4 developing members, depending on their levels. I found it to be a pretty good proportion. Of course, I was around to help and answer questions, but the kids ran the show and worked independently of me. The advanced students reinforced their understanding of the problems while the developing students shared a private tutor. And because the developing group got to practice more of the basic stuff the day before, they were much more fluid with the new material. It worked so well that I had them continue this peer tutoring for a second day.

What I loved about this stretch of days was that it promoted independent thinking and allowed me to reach the kids that needed it most. It also incorporated peer tutoring and kickstarted some great discussion amongst the kids. To top it off, it all required minimal prep. It was a win across the board.

Although we were studying the law of sines, I don’t see why I couldn’t use this strategy somewhat regularly with other topics. It could work well with anything that starts off fairly straightforward and gets complex, but still is obtainable without much scaffolding. Even if it does require a bit more guidance, I could provide more detailed scaffolding to the advanced group to help get them off the ground. And, of course, the advanced students could change based on the concept so one would get too comfortable.

Another collaboration strategy added to the toolbox.

Boy, do I need them.

 

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Two-Stage Exam

 

My kids have been struggling this spring and their exam scores have been pretty sad. Its been one of those years. To help matters, I began adjusting my pace, but I also wanted to implement some sort of structure for collaborative learning. Idea: group exams.

Sadly, I’ve never really used group exams. To be honest, the collaboration aspect of my lessons is usually pretty lackluster as a whole. I may have used group exams once or twice before, but it wasn’t significant enough for me to remember the experience. So, I had no idea on how I was going to structure it now. Brian Vancil mentioned that I try a two-stage exam.

It was amazing.

During a two-stage exam, you first have students take an exam independently, like they normally would (this is stage one). Immediately after you collect it, you get them in groups and give them the same exact exam  (this is stage two). They collaborate and submit one document with everyone’s name on it. Their final grade: 80% stage one and 20% stage two. These percentages can certainly be adjusted.

Student discussion during stage two was rich and completely focused on the mathematics. The kids were consumed with sharing their ideas, strategies, and misconceptions. Even my more introverted students were voluntarily sharing their thoughts in the groups. As I was walking around observing, part of me felt like I was dreaming. It was that good.

Their scores didn’t disappoint, either. I’ve given these exams a few times over the course of this spring and, overall, the results have been better than my traditional exams. But their scores are the least of my concerns. And two-stage exams do way more than merely inform me about how well my students understand something.

Students actually LEARN from these exams.

They’re driven by the students, reduce anxiety, and afford the kids a great opportunity to communicate their thoughts in a meaningful way. I’ve polled my kids after each of the exams and their attitudes towards the experience were overwhelmingly positive. The kids loved the immediate feedback and the ability to learn what they did wrong (and right). They were teaching and learning from each other in ways I’ve never seen. There were so many “ah-ha!” moments during stage two that they were hard to count. The groups were reflecting about what they did and didn’t do and unifying these thoughts to really learn from each other.

My kids are looking forward to the next exam. I’ve never heard that before.

 

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P.S. There’s also some introductory research on two stage exams conducted by Carl E. Wieman, Georg W. Rieger, and Cynthia E. Heiner. A good read!