Posted on: Wednesday - Jul 29, 2015

About 20 Middle Tennessee teachers stand around a long table, concentrating on the flames in front of them. One after another they hold a bobby pin, then a paperclip over the heat, and dunk it in water.

These teachers are participating in a crash course on materials science taught by an instructor with the American Society for Metals (ASM), hosted at the South Central Tennessee Workforce Alliance in Spring Hill. ASM is an organization of professional engineers who believe in helping teachers and students get excited about science, math and engineering so they can learn about the world around them and enter into those career opportunities in the future.

The Spring Hill class is a weeklong intensive focused on teaching the teachers new lessons and hands on experiments to take back to their own classrooms and students.

“It is advanced and the learning curve is a little steep for me, but I’m learning a lot and I am getting practical ideas that I can bring back to students,” says Patsy Buckner, a 6th grade science and social studies teacher in Nashville.

Buckner, like most teachers here, doesn’t teach science in a lab setting, which is why getting the students out of traditional textbook explanations, is key.

“They come in, ‘Ugh, it’s science day. Are we going get out workbooks?’” That’s the way Buckner describes some of her students’ reactions to standard science curriculum. “They don’t understand we’re going to have that excitement and fun with science.”

Buckner adds, “After these kinds of experiences, I’ve seen students in my classroom say I want to be an astrophysicist, or I’m looking at a career in biology, so I see those sparks and excitement come with the students after they’ve done these kinds of things.”

For Lisa Ogiemwonyi, an ASM master teacher, these weeklong camps—hosted around the country—are about empowering teachers to take risks in the classroom and exposing more students to the materials science field.

“Materials science deals with the things you see around you all the time, all of the different solids,” Ogiemwonyi says, “We work with metals, polymers, ceramics, composites. This course teaches you about what things are made of. How do they work that way? Why do they work that way? What do they do? How can we design products?”

In keeping with the hands on philosophy, teachers spend a great deal of their time in a lab setting as opposed to sitting in a classroom. 

According to Ogiemwonyi, “What’s most exciting is that in traditional science classes, sometimes we talk about the theory but miss the practical aspects, so what this does is it brings in those practical aspects and makes it real for people and lets them see how it’s applicable and also how it could be a future career choice for them and how they could fit into the workforce in an area they may never have been aware of before.”

The experiment with the bobby pin and paperclip—heating and cooling them in different ways—is meant to illustrate how those processes can change a metal’s properties. By doing it with everyday objects, it makes the experiment affordable and relatable.

For Buckner, teaching new concepts to her students isn’t just about keeping their interest for a few hours during school. It’s about introducing them to different career paths and possibilities they might not have been aware of.

“We have these career paths of students going to college and getting science and engineering degrees and using those skills, but there’s also a place for people who are needed in more industrial types of science positions, because those welders and people who are working with other types of industry-related science, that workforce is narrowing,” said Buckner. “So students need to understand there’s a wide variety of choices they can have and there’s going to be great needs for that in tomorrow’s workforce.”

Ogiemwonyi adds, “Now you have teachers being exposed to new things that they’re going to take back to their students and their students will go into these fields and would not have known about them before.”