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.
- 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.
- 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.
I approach a group of students discussing a problem in my class. I listen. I watch. I interpret their thinking. I sense a misconception. I ask a question to clarify what and how they are thinking. Hopefully, in the end, they reach a higher level of understanding of the problem and I reach a higher level of understanding of their comprehension.
Just like other teachers, I often do this sort of complex analysis of my students in under 10 seconds. I’ve been trained to.
That said, what if I could improve this skill I have learned over the course of my career? What if I could somehow train myself to be more attuned to student thinking?
That brings me to my next project. I’m partnering with MfA this year to bring some exciting, new PD to my school. It involves using video to record student discussion and interaction around a specific task (with no focus on the teacher). Afterwards, a group of teachers gather to watch the video, brainstorm about critical moments that occurred, interpret student thinking, and formulating questions that could be asked to clarify the thought process of the students.
It’s all based on the research by Elizabeth A. van Es and Miriam Gamoran Sherin. Here’s a follow up article they wrote on selecting clips and an overview of their work.
The idea is to slow down student thinking to the point where deep analysis can happen. My hope is that teachers at my school, along with myself, are able to use this process to improve our abilities to interpret student thinking and how we address it during our lessons.
Here are some of the challenges I foresee.
- Introducing it to teachers. You can only introduce something once and first impressions have impacts that can last until June. I must make it good.
- Teachers accepting the idea that interprepting student thinking often contains loads of uncertainty, and that this is okay. Not everything needs a final answer.
- Developing engaging prompts for the group when the conversation is lagging. This may depend on the quality of my preparation beforehand.
- I don’t see overall engagement being an issue, but you never know.
- Being able to record and edit video clips in a timely manner. Luckily, at least in the beginning, MfA will be helping with this. But how sustainable is this type of PD in the long term?
Here are a few other unrelated thoughts.
- How will teacher analysis differ if the focus is on student understanding versus misunderstanding, if at all? Does this impact “next steps” after the session?
- Speaking of next steps, how will those look?
- Can I channel teachers to certain moments in the clip based on my preparation beforehand? Would this be useful?
- I may facilitate the initial sessions, but I want to learn perspective from my colleagues about how a student may be thinking. My MfA experiences have been scintillating in this regard. There were things mentioned that I would have never thought of.
- This PD involves using video in the classroom. When most teachers think of video, they think of the teacher being recorded as s/he teaches with best practices as the center of attention. This is not that. It should be interesting to see this dynamic play out.
- Each session I’ve attended with MfA has focused on one group of students discussing a task. How would the session change if we examined multiple groups of students from different classes – all discussing the same task? How would this affect the analysis?
- This type of PD hinges on teachers understanding the content, in my case math. That notwithstanding, is there a way to run something similar that focuses on student discussion, but has a more interdisciplinary approach? Perhaps CRE/advisory?
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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…