That schoolteachers spend their summers swimming around a pool is a myth — one that the middle and high school teachers who visited the Rice campus the week of June 4 are eager to dispel. But first: an up-close-and-personal tour of the Nanotechnology Enabled Water Design Laboratory (NEWDL, pronounced “noodle”), a water purification plant housed in a steel box outside the Abercrombie Laboratory. Roughly the size of a portable storage container, the lab can treat 5,000 liters of water per hour, and it had this group of science teachers captivated.
“There’s only one word: amazing,” said Ramon Benavides, a biology teacher from El Paso’s Ysleta Independent School District. “Such a small space, with just so much stuff in there.”
Richard Daines, a chemistry teacher from the Phoenix Union school district in Arizona, nodded his agreement. “All of us do something with nanotechnology and usually something related to water,” said Daines, whose summer research project in François Perreault’s lab at Arizona State University employs silver particles to scrub bromide from water to render it drinkable. But the NEWDL, in both its tremendous scope and compact size, was something next-level.
Like the NEWDL itself, the visit was just one of the initiatives undertaken by the Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment (NEWT) Center, an interdisciplinary, multi-institution nanosystems-engineering research center headquartered at Rice. Funded by a five-year, $18.5 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, NEWT is Houston’s first NSF Engineering Research Center and only the third in Texas in nearly 30 years. It brings together experts from Rice, Arizona State University, Yale University and the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) to work with more than 30 industry, academic and governmental partners.
NEWT’s goal is to facilitate access to clean water across the world by creating systems like the NEWDL but also by disseminating knowledge to educators at all levels to better prepare the next generation of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students. To that end, the Rice Office of STEM Engagement (R-STEM) helps facilitate a yearlong program that brings together the NEWT researchers and K-12 teachers from across the country. Elevating Rice’s research achievement and extending Rice’s research and impact are goals of the university’s Vision for the Second Century, Second Decade (V2C2).
This Research Experience for Teachers (RET) program is designed to empower secondary-level science teachers through a six-week internship during which they conduct research in NEWT laboratories and develop rigorous project-based engineering activities on the topic of water sustainability for their classrooms. Over 450 applications were received this year for a limited number of spots in the prestigious internship program; 21 teachers were selected.
In partnership with Arizona State and UTEP, teachers from Phoenix and El Paso flew in for a three-day RET orientation to interact with their peers in Houston. In addition to tours of cutting-edge water purification plants like the NEWDL and hands-on research with NEWT faculty, graduate students and postdoctoral students, the RET program also provides teachers with professional development training in curriculum writing, written and verbal scientific communication and implicit bias.
“My district loves that I’m doing this,” said Taylor Miller, who teaches the biotechnology program in the Tempe Union school district in the Phoenix metropolitan area. “We’re trying to get students involved in internships in the summers. This is kind of cool because I get to come back and talk about my own internship, and then they get to learn about what it’s like, get excited about it and make their own research posters in class.”
During their on-campus stay (with overnight accommodations in Baker College), the educators get the opportunity to share classroom experiences and successes with their colleagues in STEM education. Compensation for their hard work within the RET program includes a stipend and a going-away Tex-Mex dinner, though they’ll be back for a poster presentation July 20 that will highlight the work done during their internship.
But for these teachers, the most important aspect of the visit is the opportunity to bring newly discovered research and ideas back to their classrooms — to inspire students with tales of emerging technologies like the NEWDL, a hands-on project with real-world implications. Last month a brand new NEWDL was installed in the town of Shadnagar, in the semi-arid state of Telangana located high on India’s Deccan Plateau. There, the small storage container will provide the village with 75,000 liters of clean water per day for the next 25 years.
“That vision people have in their head of what teachers do [in the summer] is wrong,” said Benavides. “You come back and you want to talk about your posters, about your research.”
In addition to teaching high school biology, Benavides is also his school’s head track coach and conducts STEM classes at a nearby community college. Despite this roster of activities and the six-week internship at Rice, he said he’s never tired and always eager to share his love of science. “I really enjoy it,” he said. “I just love what I do.”