Making the grade: UTMB’s Office of Educational Outreach enables teachers and students to succeed

Aug 18, 2017, 05:54 AM by KirstiAnn Clifford
Dr. Marguerite Sognier (right) provides encouragement as teacher Kacey Sommers works on programming a robot.
The importance of a good teacher is no secret. There’s long-standing research confirming that the most influential factor in student achievement is teacher effectiveness.

That’s why UTMB’s Office of Educational Outreach provides programs not only for students but also for teachers.

“One teacher will impact hundreds of students during the academic year, and thousands over the course of their career,” said Dr. Clifford Houston, UTMB’s associate vice president for Educational Outreach and Herman Barnett Distinguished Professor in Microbiology and Immunology. “As educators of our future workforce, we want to enhance teachers’ professional development so they can give students the best tools for a bright future. The more a teacher’s background is supplemented with math and science, the more effective they will be in the classroom.”

This summer, the Office of Educational Outreach held a high-intensity professional development program for teachers focused on computer science to help address the critical shortage of computer science teachers in the state. By the end of the course in July, the 21 teachers from Galveston County and beyond were prepared to take an exam to become certified computer science teachers for grades 6-12.

“So much of medicine, research—and everyday life for that matter—is integrated with computers,” said Dr. Marguerite Sognier, director of the Office of Educational Outreach. “We are helping teachers enable their students to develop critical and innovative thinking skills to meet the rapidly developing technological changes in all fields. As a university, we have an important role to play in supporting and fostering the kind of biomedical and health care workforce we know will be essential in the future.”

During part of the professional development program, each teacher built their own computers from scratch. Using a “Raspberry Pi,” which is a small, affordable, single board computer used to help teach programming, teachers used their critical-thinking skills to program robots to do different functions. They were all excited to share their newly acquired skills with students.

“This is the first time I’ve done anything like this—it was out of my comfort zone but this program has helped us grow as teachers and be more confident,” said Kacey Sommers, an eighth grade science teacher at Lomax Junior High in La Porte. “I’ve participated in several summer trainings at UTMB and always leave with resources and activities to incorporate into the curriculum. I’ve implemented a lot of engineering design and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) activities and have seen tremendous growth in students—they have become better critical thinkers and problem solvers.”

Teachers were able to keep the equipment used in the program and have access to the Office of Educational Outreach’s resource center, which provides all types of math, science and other supplies for teachers to borrow and use in their classrooms.

“Many times, teachers have to pay out of pocket for anything above and beyond what’s in a traditional classroom,” said Houston. “So we want to empower teachers further by giving them the materials they need to be more effective. They may not have a gel electrophoresis device, but after we’ve taught them how to use it, we’ll let them borrow it to use in the classroom.”

The computer science program is just one of many professional development opportunities offered to teachers by the Office of Educational Outreach. As one of seven Texas Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (T-STEM) Centers across the state designated by the Texas Education Agency, UTMB also offers professional development in mathematics, science, project-based learning, robotics and technology. In addition, workshops are available throughout the academic year to provide educators with STEM content, best practices and instructional strategies, and to help them connect academic content to real-world career experiences. In one year, more than 1,200 teachers and 72,000 students are directly or indirectly impacted by these programs.

Sognier added that the teacher programs help recruit students for the various Educational Outreach pre-college student pipeline programs such as the High School Biomedical Research Program, Biomedical Health Careers Academy and Summer STEM Camps.

“Teachers go back to the classroom with a new confidence and excitement and they pass it on to their students—and that’s very significant,” she said. “We get many pre-college students who previously were not interested in science, but who sign up for one of our programs after hearing about it from their teachers. Just one program experience can be life changing for these students and can give them the skills and confidence to succeed.”