Middle Schoolers Get Excited About Engineering—From 3,500 Miles Away

Thursday, August 9, 2012
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berkley sadana in hard hat

Berkley Sadana accompanied Diane Foster, associate professor of mechanical engineering, on a trip to the Netherlands to study how waves cause beach erosion.

Local Teacher and UNH Professor Collaborate in the Netherlands

With its high-tech instruments, esoteric terms, and complex equations, engineering research conducted by UNH faculty is far removed from the basic learning that occurs in a middle-school classroom.

Or is it? This summer, students at Oyster River Middle School in Durham got a close-up look at real-world research when their intern, Berkley Sadana, accompanied a UNH professor on a trip to the Netherlands to study how waves cause beach erosion. During her 10 days at the Delta Flume—a wave simulator that’s longer than two football fields placed end-to-end—Sadana interacted with students via daily blog entries and several on-site Skype sessions.

“It was live experiential education,” says Sadana, who earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from UNH. “It gave students the opportunity to see firsthand what we were doing.” Sadana’s experience in the Netherlands is part of a larger effort at UNH to engage young people in engineering by giving their teachers a chance to collaborate with faculty. A $500,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant is bringing middle and high school science teachers like Sadana to campus for an intensive, seven-week research experience. “The idea of the program is that if the teachers are excited and knowledgeable about engineering, they will take this enthusiasm and information back to their students to get them interested,” says Brad Kinsey, professor of mechanical engineering and the principal investigator on the grant.

Together with faculty mentors and graduate students, 11 teachers during the past two summers have worked on projects ranging from assessing the health of bridges to improving devices for measuring contaminants. They also have developed engineering activities to share with their classes throughout New Hampshire and beyond. The first initiative of its kind at UNH, this Research Experiences for Teachers in Engineering (RETE) program includes several women faculty members. The aim is to attract women teachers—and ultimately to encourage more girls to explore engineering.

Diane Foster

Diane Foster, associate professor of mechanical at UNH

After applying to the program this spring, Sadana emailed Diane Foster, associate professor of mechanical engineering, whose research intrigued her. A few weeks passed, and then Sadana received a reply from Foster that included an astonishing invitation: Would she like to go with her on an international research trip? Within 48 hours, Sadana accepted. “I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to be feet to fire in terms of being put right into a field-scale engineering research project,” she recalls.

One week later, in early June, Sadana and Foster headed to Vollenhove, a small town northeast of Amsterdam. Sadana’s travel was paid for out of the National Science Foundation grant that supports the RETE program; Foster had other NSF support. They joined some 25 researchers from nine countries on the collaborative project led by the University of Plymouth and financed by the European Union. The scientists were performing many different experiments at the Delta Flume, all of them aimed at better understanding the movement of sand grains on beaches. Foster’s research used Smart Sand Grains—devices resembling ping-pong balls that track sediment transport in waves.

Before leaving home, Sadana and Foster had presented a PowerPoint on the project to students at Oyster River, where Sadana completed a yearlong internship. That was just the beginning of their outreach: In addition to posting text, photos and video to a blog, Sadana used Foster’s iPad to give students a virtual view of the project. The students, nearly 200 fifth-and seventh-graders during four Skype sessions, got to watch waves travel the length of the flume and to speak with scientists at the site. Among the questions students asked: What’s the tallest wave the flume can generate? (Answer: one meter).

Joe Bonnell, a seventh-grader in Sadana’s class this past school year, said he read her blog daily in class and at home. He especially liked learning about the experiments at the flume and seeing the technology the scientists used, including the Smart Sand Grains. “It was cool and different that Mrs. Sadana got to write us every day,” he says. “It kind of felt like we were part of it, too.”

Sadana not only translated the scientists’ research to a broader community, Foster says, but also conveyed the thrill of doing science. “She was able to witness and be part of the excitement of knowledge generation as well as the excitement of like-minded souls coming together to collectively work toward a goal.”

The trip also allowed Sadana to show her students that she was willing to put herself in their shoes. “I think it gives students a unique perspective to see their teacher open to new learning opportunities,” she says.

While Sadana has a science background, it’s not in engineering: After graduating from UNH in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in biology, she stayed on for a year to earn an M.A. in environmental education, then spent several years working in outdoor learning for the New Hampshire and Massachusetts Audubon societies. Wanting to follow students over time, she decided to become a classroom teacher and returned to UNH for a master’s degree in secondary science education, which she completed this spring.

After coming back from the Netherlands, Sadana took part in the RETE program at UNH, working with a graduate student to analyze data from the flume. Her experience also inspired seven lessons that she plans to use this fall while teaching sixth-grade science at Timberline Regional Middle School in Plaistow. They incorporate hands-on activities—some of which she piloted last month at a Seacoast Science Center teen nature camp—such as building a mini-wave simulator out of Rubbermaid containers to help students explore how waves affect both fine- and coarse-grained sand. (Teachers in the RETE program receive $1,000 toward materials for their lessons.) The unit culminates in a field trip to Odiorne Point State Park in Rye, where students will use sieves to examine grain-size distribution on two beaches. Foster will serve as a resource, sharing knowledge and equipment with Sadana’s students.

Meanwhile, even though school’s out at Oyster River, Sadana and Foster have been running into students who ask about their work in the Netherlands. “I think that shows they were excited for me and genuinely interested in the research,” Sadana says. “For middle schoolers to still have that on their minds in summertime is pretty neat.”

Originally published by:

UNH Today

Written by Sonia Scherr '13. Photos courtesy of Berkley Sadana.