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.
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?