New Materials Research Science and Engineering Center will include K-5 educational program

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Materials science researchers at UT have received a $15.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation, NSF, for researching new types of materials. Researchers from the Cockrell School of Engineering and the College of Natural Sciences will create a new Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, MRSEC, at UT. The UT MRSEC will be known as the Center for Dynamics and Control of Materials, CDCM.

The grant is part of a larger program through the NSF which seeks to promote materials science research and education across the country through the creation of MRSECs.

“The program (is) designed to foster interdisciplinary research, to address larger problems than one professor could address,” said chemical engineering professor Brian Korgel, who was part of the team which developed the proposal for the CDCM.

A part of the program led by Korgel will focus specifically on developing materials science education programs. While a large portion of the funding goes to graduate students and professors, parts of the program aim to address the community at-large.

Educational programs for graduate students include the Industry-University Nexus, which exposes graduate students to industry and gives them mentorship and internship opportunities. Others include programs teaching graduate students and faculty about how to create startups and translate their research to business.

Programs which focus on the community include an artist residency, which aims to engage artists in the research process, Korgel said. The program will bring artists in to work with researchers to communicate and creatively inform their work.

Other programs include the Research Experiences for Teachers, RET, program. While this concept was initially developed by the NSF, UT’s approach is unique in its focus on K-5 science education. The program plans to bring K-5 teachers to campus for the summer to participate in research to make them more comfortable with science, according to Korgel.

“Elementary school teachers are expected to be experts on everything,” Korgel said. “There’s nothing that complicated about what (they) can teach (in science). It’s about feeling confident and comfortable with your science knowledge.”

CDCM director and electrical and computer engineering professor Edward Yu says these teachers will act as science ambassadors.

“Teachers will conduct research in a research lab and also … develop materials that they can take back with them to their school to use with their students and also teach some of the other teachers in their schools and school districts,” Yu said. “The power of engaging with teachers is that through the students whom they work with over the years, there are enormous numbers of students who are affected by that.”

In order to create the program and effectively reach elementary teachers, Korgel reached out to faculty in Round Rock Independent School District. Bertha Benedict, the coordinator for bilingual/ESL programs for the district, was invited to participate by Korgel after she taught his youngest son. She, along with another RRISD employee, plans to help with the recruitment of teachers to the program.

“Capturing students’ interest in science at an early age is crucial in developing problem-solving skills that will support their academic work as well as their daily interactions with today’s scientific and technological environment,” Benedict said.

While the RET program will influence students indirectly by educating their teachers, Korgel says a general outreach program called Stuff will engage students directly by creating tools for teachers and bringing kids to the University to interact with materials.

Yu stressed the benefit of engaging kids in science at a young age.

“Every kindergartner is a scientist,” Yu said. “They’ll do an experiment and then will take the evidence from that experiment and use it to modify their understanding. It’s the most fundamental version of scientific inquiry.”