Darran Cairns has found a way to satisfy two desires, while advancing the cause of science education at the same time: he is teaching the teachers.

After getting his bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, Cairns debated whether to head off to a teacher preparation program or pursue his doctorate.

The doctorate won out, and Cairns is assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at West Virginia University’s College of Engineering and Mineral Resources.

But the lure of the high school classroom never faded.

Now, Cairns fulfills both yearnings as he directs WVU’s Research Experience for Teachers, a six-week summer program funded by the National Science Foundation that offers K-12 math and science teachers hands-on research at more than two dozen sites across the United States.

At WVU, the program provides high school teachers from underserved school districts with experience in the areas of energy and the environment, experience they can take back to their classrooms.

The 11 teachers chosen for the 2010 program, which began in June and will run through July 23, received a $6,000 stipend, plus travel and accommodations for a 10-day trip to England. There the teachers worked with some of the UK’s top engineers and teachers at Cairns’ alma mater, studying, among other things, hydrogen-powered cars and boats.

Back at WVU, the teachers are taking professional development classes in addition to conducting research – alongside WVU undergraduate and graduate students – on emissions, solar panels, climate change and hydrogen-based fuel cells. In most cases, it’s research they are able to continue with their students in the fall, and a preview of what those students could encounter in college.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to go back and tell your students, ‘You can actually do this in a couple of years,’ ” said Leann Sayre, a chemistry teacher at Fairmont Senior High School.

Sayre, like most of the teachers in the RET program, traveled to Morgantown with another teacher in her district. Though not a requirement of the program, Cairns believes having two teachers from the same area benefits the students.

They get “double the knowledge,” says Coral Glades (Fla.) High School physics teacher Arsenio Meneses.

And, adds Cairns, it helps to build a community of professionals who are intent on sharing knowledge with each other and motivating their students to pursue STEM fields.

“We’re building bridges,” Cairns said, “between cultures, urban and rural areas, science and math, high schools and universities. It’s about building communities.”

Cairns will revisit his current crop of teachers in the fall, as they implement what they’ve learned in their classrooms, and he’ll begin recruiting another group of teachers soon after.

He expects to accept eight to 10 teachers into next year’s summer program.

He’s looking for teachers in all stages of their career and across all math and science disciplines. But mostly, he’s looking for teachers who are committed to offering their students the best education possible.

“We can’t bring every high school student in West Virginia to WVU for the summer,” Cairns said. “But by having their teachers here, we can pass knowledge on.”



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