High school chemistry teacher Kirk Wicker can’t wait to tell his students what he did over the summer when he returns to his classroom at Ford City Junior-Senior High School, in Pennsylvania, this fall.
“I can tell them what an industrial chemist actually does on a day-to-day basis,” he says, reflecting on his six-week internship experience at Bayer MaterialScience, in Pittsburgh, where he conducted research on polymer analytics and polymer physics.
Wicker was one of four high school chemistry teachers who participated in a teacher research internship this summer facilitated by the American Chemical Society. The program’s goals are to give high school teachers industrial experience and to broaden ACS’s Project SEED program, which provides high school students from economically disadvantaged families with stipends to conduct summer research projects in the chemical sciences.
Project SEED students are typically placed in university research labs and mentored by faculty, but because industry accounts for the majority of chemistry jobs, ACS is trying to expand the program to include more industrial partners, says Terri M. Taylor, assistant director for K–12 education at ACS. By bringing high school teachers and industrial researchers together, the society hopes to stimulate new ideas for providing high school students with a safe and meaningful experience in an industry setting, she says.
The teacher internship program is supported by a two-year, $75,000 grant from the Bayer USA Foundation. From 2007 to 2009, the Motorola Foundation provided grants to support summer research experiences for high school chemistry teachers in university labs.
This summer’s other industrial interns were Roxana Allen, a teacher at St. John’s School, in Houston, who helped identify and quantify trace components in product streams from ethylene oxide and glycol processes at Shell Technology Center, in Houston; Amanda James of Impact Early College High School, in Baytown, Texas, who conducted research in the polyurethane quality laboratory at Bayer MaterialScience, Baytown; and Mallam Phillips of Fort Bend Independent School District, in Sugar Land, Texas, who studied the viscosity of different types of fracturing fluids and gels at Schlumberger, in Houston.
The teachers say the experience gave them a better understanding of the challenges students might face while working in an industrial lab. “The overarching goal is for us to figure out if we can make this work for a high school student,” Allen says.
“There’s lots of enthusiasm in the technical community here to support this kind of STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] education and pass on our love for science to a new generation,” says Mike Potter, a senior research scientist at Shell and Allen’s mentor.
This experience has prompted Matthew Vila, manager of the polymer analytics group at Bayer MaterialScience and Wicker’s mentor, to begin thinking about the logistics of mentoring high school students in his lab. For example, he is considering how to keep an eye on students and ensure they follow safety protocols while also giving them independence. “All those things we’re trying to flesh out in terms of what we might do in a future program if we were to sponsor a SEED student,” Vila says.
But many students will benefit when the teachers bring what they’ve learned in industry back to their classrooms. Wicker says that by gaining a clearer picture of how industry works, he is better prepared to answer students’ questions about what it’s like to work in industry and to explain the various career opportunities available to them.
James agrees. “When I get the question, ‘Why do we have to do this?’ or ‘How does it affect me?’ I think the internship experience really gives me a true way to answer their questions,” she says.
The internships have also contributed to the teachers’ personal growth. “I haven’t been in a research lab in about 30 years, so it’s been fun for me to see how things have progressed,” Allen says.
It’s important for high school teachers to gain real-world experience, Phillips adds. “As a teacher, you tend to get limited to the four walls of your classroom, and if you don’t make an effort to learn more, then you won’t learn more.”
His mentor, Valerie Lafitte, says she and Phillips are discussing opportunities for his students to visit her lab or for her to give a talk to his chemistry class. “I think it would be really great for high school students to see, at an early stage of their career path, what they can do and what industry can offer them,” she says.
“If my students could talk to people in industry and hear their experiences, I think it would really motivate them,” Phillips says. But “if they don’t know about those opportunities, then they won’t pursue them.”