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School teachers expand knowledge through MIT program

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Sixty-one middle and high school science teachers from 20 states as well as Argentina, Brazil and Lebanon heard talks by 30 MIT professors on research at the 2000 MIT Science and Engineering Program for Teachers.

The June 26-30 program featured eight hours of presentations each day on subjects ranging from the frontiers of physics and biology to artificial intelligence and transportation systems.

An engineer's approach to archaeology was the subject of Dr. Heather N. Lechtman's talk. "As materials engineers we analyze ancient objects in a laboratory environment," said Dr. Lechtman, professor of archaeology and ancient technology. Through this approach, "we can reconstruct pretty well the set of decisions and choices made throughout the production of an artifact. And when you know about people's decisions, then you know something about the people."

Archaeology "is the greatest thing for kids, including the kids at MIT," she said. "They can be historians, engineers and physicists all at once."

Hands were often raised during a session on aircraft engines by Associate Professor Ian A. Waitz of aeronautics and astronautics. "Why did the industry move from four to two engines?" asked one teacher. It's more efficient, and maintenance costs are much lower, answered Professor Waitz. "If one engine fails, can the plane still get home?" Yes. "Promise?" said the questioner with a smile.

Professor Waitz began his talk with statistics about jets and their importance. For example, aircraft are the number-one manufacturing export of the United States, which builds some 75 percent of the world's aircraft engines. The engine is more complex than the airplane of which it is a part -- an airplane has three airfoils, or small wings, compared to the 4,000 airfoils in the engine.

MIT research on aircraft engines ranges from reducing their negative impacts on the environment to building microengines the size of a coat button. "What would you do with an engine that size?" he asked the teachers. Among the audience suggestions: model airplanes, spying, roller blades, prostheses and generators.

Potential applications as generators, or replacements for batteries, is actually "the main reason for funding microengine research," Professor Waitz said. Some 50 MIT researchers have been working on the MIT Microengine Project, which has been underway for about five years. Within the next few months they hope to build their first demonstration engine.

Professor Ronald M. Latanision of materials science and engineering founded the Science and Engineering Program for Teachers 12 years ago to provide educators with a different perspective on the subjects they teach.

"We're all part of the same educational continuum," said Professor Latanision, who is director of the program. "High school students today are our students tomorrow and, ultimately, they represent the future of the educated population."

Once they complete the MIT program, participants are granted membership in the Network of Educators in Science and Technology (NEST) organization, the goal of which is to enhance scientific, mathematical and technological literacy. See the NEST web site for more information.

Among other benefits, NEST offers follow-up workshops for its members. This year, 15 NEST teachers participated in the StarLogo Community of Learners Workshop aimed at developing useful, curriculum-supporting modeling tools. The workshop, also held June 26-30, was led by Professor Eric Klopfer of the Teacher Education Program and the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on July 12, 2000.

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