Success Story

NIST Program Connects Middle School Teachers and Students with Engineers and Scientists

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The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Summer Institute for Middle School Science Teachers provides a bridge between the cutting-edge research at NIST and the educational community, with the goal of improving science education by supporting middle school science teachers.

To develop future generations of scientists and engineers, NIST works with middle school science teachers to translate research into the classroom, providing classroom activities that parallel research underway in NIST labs. Each summer, the teachers visit NIST for two weeks of hands-on activities, lectures, tours, and visits with scientists and engineers.

NIST scientists teach indepth lessons, and provide resources and instructional tools so teachers can in turn offer those lessons in the classroom. Teachers return for occasional Science Afternoons at NIST.

The NIST Summer Institute was founded in 2007 by then NIST Chief Scientist Hratch Semerjian, who wanted to encourage more students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and who realized that middle school is a critical time in maintaining student interest in science.

The NIST Summer Institute initially focused on local teachers, and now attracts participants from across the United States. For those teachers outside of the D.C. metro area who cannot attend Science Afternoons at NIST, the Summer Institute encourages them to connect with scientists at their local universities and laboratories, and provides online materials and resources.

“Most middle school science teachers don’t know any scientists,” said Dr. Mary Satterfield, who runs the NIST Summer Institute and was a teacher herself before entering graduate school and coming to work at NIST as a chemist. “The NIST scientists share their expertise and enthusiasm, which in turn makes teachers more excited about science. The scientists serve as role models for STEM careers since they sometimes visit the classrooms, and teachers may talk about the scientists during lessons.”

Forensics was the topic at the latest Summer Institute. Teachers visited a lab that studies human identification using DNA.

The NIST scientist performed a common lab technique to separate DNA molecules in minutes for the teachers. A lecture followed the lab experiment and then the teachers carried out their own experiments. They extracted DNA from a strawberry and then separated the DNA by the same technique they had just observed in the lab, but modified for classroom use. Another day teachers learned about diffraction and created out of paper towel spectrometers tubes that allowed them to study a material by splitting its light to determine the material’s composition.

The program increases teachers’ understanding of the science they teach, provides resources for new lessons, rekindles their enthusiasm for science, and offers a network of NIST scientists and engineers available for consultation after the program ends. “Those two weeks not only provided me with well-planned lessons and technical materials, but they also allowed me to forge relationships with experts whose scientific advice is only a call away,” one teacher wrote of her Summer Institute experience. “Imagine how excited my students were to make ice cream from liquid nitrogen.”