Published: July 19, 2013
"Cotton or polyester?"
It's a question that teacher Kelly Newcomb may mull when making wardrobe choices.
It's not one she's used to answering with an instructor hovering over her shoulder.
"A mix," Newcomb answered hesitantly, thinking back to the odd manner in which a fiber burned when she plunged it into a flame.
"Are you sure?" the instructor prodded.
Newcomb shook her head dejectedly. She was wrong; the fabric was cotton.
But a smile quickly returned.
"This is very fun," the Pine Creek High School science instructor said as she analyzed another scrap of fabric from a mock crime scene Thursday at an Air Force Academy science lab.
As participants of the fourth annual STEM Boot Camp - organized by the academy's K-12 STEM Outreach Center and the Colorado Consortium for Earth and Space Science Education - Newcomb and a hundred other K-12 instructors traded in their grade books for notebooks and became students this week.
The three-day seminar allowed teachers to fill their proverbial toolboxes with tips and tricks for turning students on to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
"We really want these teachers to become STEM ambassadors in their schools," said Julie Imada, an academy spokeswoman.
It's a role that Palmer Ridge High School math and engineering teacher Scott Obermeyer is enthused about.
He spent Thursday morning with other high school teachers, learning forensic science techniques, such as how to distinguish handwriting samples and real money from counterfeit.
When teachers learn about concepts outside their discipline, "classes aren't divided anymore," Obermeyer said.
"I now can talk to my students and say, 'I know what you're doing in so-and-so's class,'?" he said. "We don't give the deer-in-the-headlights look when students bring up something from another subject."
The highlight of his time at the boot camp: guiding a robot through an underwater obstacle course.
"We're just as bad as the kids," he said. "We want to do the projects, too."
Down the hall, elementary school teachers learned how to introduce students to basic engineering concepts such as levers and lifts.
Teachers were assigned to use Lego Duplo education kits to build swing sets that would allow two figurines to enjoy those swings in tandem.
As instructors giggled, took cellphone pictures of their creations and joked about singing "the clean-up song," one teacher fished through a tub of the colorful plastic blocks, searching for a hair twisty she'd used while creating a makeshift pulley.
But you don't have to be MacGyver to introduce STEM concepts to your students, the session instructor said.
"Engineering is like teaching," she said. "You try, see where you went wrong and fix it."