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UD research experience inspires science teacher

Elizabeth Cartier, a participant in the University of Delaware's Nature InSpired Engineering-Research Experience for Teachers (NISE-RET) program during the summer of 2008, recently led her middle school students to a win in a FIRST Lego League (FLL) Robotics Competition.

The seventh grade science teacher at Aberdeen Middle School in Maryland advised the school's first-ever robotics team, which won the technical design trophy for the best robot design and presentation at Salisbury Middle School on Jan. 9. The team qualified to compete in the state competition, to be held on Jan. 30 at the University of Maryland.

FIRST is an acronym for the phrase For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, and every year FLL works with experts in the field to create a challenge that relates to a significant real-world issue. The end result is a two-part challenge that requires research to complete the project, as well as science and engineering to master the complex missions of the robot game. The 2009 “Smart Move” Challenge was aimed at transforming the way people look at transportation.

Cartier participated in the first year of the NISE-RET program at UD, working in the laboratory of Millicent Sullivan, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering. Her project focused on engineering of bio-inspired polymeric materials for drug delivery and tissue engineering.

The RET program is aimed at bringing science and math teachers into ongoing research and collaboration communities during the summer, enabling them to develop tools to bring back to their classrooms. Cartier not only gained valuable research experience at UD but also received an offer of help with future projects in her teaching. She took the University up on its offer and benefitted from the assistance of two mechanical engineering juniors, Dan McCarthy and Adam Stager, who mentored her student team.

“Adam and Dan are both highly intelligent, dedicated students,” says Cartier. “All of the parents who attended the competition were impressed with their ability to manage 10 energetic middle school students with passion, creativity and understanding of the students' needs. I would not have had the success that I had with the team without them.”

“Helping the kids on the FLL team has been a very rewarding experience,” says McCarthy, “and I couldn't be more proud of how far they have progressed in the short time they've been working on this project. Also, I know that my time and effort will be justified if this experience steers some of the students towards an engineering or science degree.”

Stager agrees and adds, “Solving problems by molding together the opinions of everyone on the team is what won us the technical award at the competition. The kids learned that minimizing error is the best way to get a robot to produce acceptable results. They also discovered that although trial and error is a simple method, it produces exceptional results, while providing them with a hands-on experience.”

“One of the goals of the NISE-RET program is to develop ongoing relationships between the pre-college community and the College of Engineering at the University of Delaware,” says Kenneth Barner, principal investigator of the NISE-RET program and chairperson of UD's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “This is a great example of the program laying the foundation for future collaboration.”

“Elizabeth is a dynamic teacher who used her summer research experience to really excite her students,” Barner adds. “At the same time, the relationship offered two of our undergraduates the unique opportunity to mentor younger students and further contribute to their growing interest in science and engineering.”

Many believe that K-12 outreach is especially important in the engineering disciplines because those subjects are not taught at the pre-college level.

“Activities like the robotics competition are a great way to expose middle and high school students to the kind of problem solving involved in engineering careers and to pique their interest in these subjects before they have to choose a college major,” says Kathleen Werrell, assistant dean for engineering outreach at UD. “We're currently increasing the college's outreach efforts, and the NISE-RET program has been a huge boost in that regard, helping us to establish and expand excellent collaborations with schools in Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.”

Stager looks forward to continuing to support the team. “Every time we meet, we discover new ways to improve the robot,” he says. “Being a first-year team, we expect to only get better in the years to come.”

Article by Diane Kukich


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