BOZEMAN — With a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Montana State University will offer a summer program for elementary schoolteachers to gain hands-on research experience and fresh ideas for bringing science, technology, engineering and math into their classrooms.

The funding will support 10 Montana teachers annually for three years in a new MSU program called Research Experience for Teachers in Engineering, in which participants will work alongside faculty in cutting-edge research labs, attend field trips and engage in workshops for crafting STEM lesson plans. The six-week program kicks off in June 2022, and applications are now available.

“Our goal is to provide teachers with an authentic research experience that they can take back to their classrooms and inspire the next generation of engineers and other STEM professionals, especially among students who might not otherwise think of that as a career option," said project leader Paul Gannon, professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering in MSU's Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering.

The program has an energy theme and will offer opportunities for research on topics such as biofuels and battery technology in collaboration with MSU’s Energy Research Institute and Western Transportation Institute. The field trips will include visits to energy facilities such as dams, oil refineries and solar arrays. The trips will also include stops at nearby Indigenous sites such as buffalo jumps, where participants will discuss Native perspectives in STEM and gain ideas for fulfilling Montana's Indian Education for All curriculum, according to Gannon, who is also an affiliate faculty member in MSU's Montana Engineering Education Research Center, or MEERC.

Project co-leader Rebekah Hammack, assistant professor in the Department of Education in MSU's College of Education, Health and Human Development, participated in a similar RET program years ago as a middle school teacher and said the experience was invaluable for her and, in turn, for her students.

"Before that I didn't really know what engineering was, which I think is common among teachers," she said. "I thought they just build bridges and roads, but I had no idea that they did research in labs. Seeing firsthand how they work to solve complex problems in society changed my understanding, and I could better communicate that to my students."

Hammack will work with participating teachers to take research experience from the lab and craft lesson plans for elementary students. She will also be available to consult with participating teachers throughout the school year.

"I think this can open up a whole new world for elementary teachers and help them build their confidence and knowledge to do awesome activities with their students," Hammack said.

According to Sweeney Windchief, associate professor of education who is advising the program on including Indigenous perspectives, the visits to Native sites are not just about helping teachers meet the Indian Education for All requirements laid out in Montana's constitution but also about helping them gain a larger context for teaching STEM that can help them connect with their Native students.

"If teachers can make STEM relevant to Native history and identity, that opens the door for having one more Native engineer, someone who can go back to serve and empower their community," Windchief said.

The deadline for applying for the summer 2022 program is Feb. 4. For more information and to apply, visit montana.edu/ret.

- Marshall Swearingen, MSU News Service -