Springfield School District Superintendent Nancy Golden sat entranced in front of a scanning electron microscope, looking at the stunning detailed image of a pill bug magnified 4,000 times.
Crow-Applegate-Lorane middle school teacher Lisa Livelybrooks laughed out loud as she pressed a hand-held magnifier against her eyebrow and saw what her face looks like magnified 50 times.
Kelly Trant-Valley, a Creswell teacher, examined a triangle built of cardboard strips held together with brass fasteners and considered how much sturdier the three-sided structure was than a four-sided one folding in on itself in the hands of a colleague.
Teachers and school administrators learning, in other words.
On Tuesday night at the Eugene School District's Education Center, dozens of them gathered from several local school districts, joined by University of Oregon professors and local industry engineers, to begin the implementation of an ambitious grant designed to improve how students learn about science, technology, engineering and math - or STEM, in the educational vernacular. In groups of four or five, they moved through different engineering stations set up much the way classroom projects are. And they laughed and discussed and learned much the way students do.
The so-called STEMposium brought together for the first time the people responsible for working on the $450,000 project titled "Content in Context" and paid for by the state Department of Education.
Together they will design classroom projects for students that represent real-world challenges rather than mere academic exercises, said Dean Livelybrooks, a UO senior physics instructor (and middle school teacher Lisa's husband) who is overseeing the grant with the Eugene and Springfield school districts.
Dean Livelybrooks described it as a cross-cultural exchange program to get teachers, professors and industry professionals all thinking about what it takes to make sure that classroom learning is connected to what goes on outside the classroom.
The need for such connections became apparent almost immediately Tuesday when Eugene, Springfield and Creswell teachers joined Arcimoto engineer Joe Morgan at a game designed to help students understand the many kinds of engineers that work on projects as varied as computer games and prosthetic limbs. When the group was asked to name the kind of engineers involved in making a car, the teachers didn't think a chemical engineer would have a role.
But Morgan begged to differ: Chemical engineers play a part in the many elements that go into a car, he said.
"There's tons of chemicals involved" in the plastics and other parts of a motor vehicle, he said.
It's that kind of real-world voice that Content in Context wants students to experience directly, said Dara Brennan, the grant outreach coordinator.
"What we want to do is emulate what goes on in the work world," she said.
In the grant's upcoming first year, teachers will partner with university and industry experts to design the projects and test them out in a pilot session with students. In the second year, students from the fifth through 10th grades will get a chance to try them out more broadly and create projects they'd like to work on, Brennan said.
Among the projects the partners envision: 10th-graders working with a UO geology professor to analyze and report on the seismic hazards at local school sites.
Their work will result in real analysis that school districts will be able to use for facilities planning, Dean Livelybrooks said.
Students also will be turning to nature to inspire technological solutions to design problems. Velcro, the fabric fastening system, is a classic example, its design based on seeds that attach to animal fur and human clothing to disperse. The looking-at-nature-for-design-ideas project will require students to think about the relationship between structure and function, according to the grant application.
Students will be designing electric vehicles, learning how to analyze water samples and studying how electricity, magnetism and motors are used to improve energy efficiency in bus engines.
The grant also will create a regional STEM network responsible for sharing the newly created school projects with other teachers and schools, and seek out new learning opportunities for students.
Creswell School District Superintendent Todd Hamilton was among the educators present Tuesday. It was a no-brainer to agree to participate, Hamilton said.
"We're a small district and we'd never be able to afford something like this on our own," he said.
$450,000 shared among schools and industry
School districts: Eugene, Springfield, Bethel, Crow-Applegate-Lorane, Creswell, Siuslaw and Lane Education Service District
Industry: Arcimoto, Autohaus/George Rode, LifeTechnologies, Eugene Water & Electric Board
Government: City of Eugene Parks and Open Space, Lane Transit District, Oregon Department of Energy
Higher education: Lane Community College, University of Oregon
More information: rgne.ws/stemg