Recess Blog

Seeing Teachers as Scientists

By Rob Schroeder
December 12, 2016

When science teacher Tammy Pheuphong announced to her class she would be missing a day of class to attend a conference at NASA, her students broke out in applause.

“It was really uncomfortable, really awkward,” Pheuphong said. “But I hope this has an impact on them, seeing my teacher actually does science and doesn’t just talk about doing science.”

Teacher Tammy Pheuphong works with a small group at Infinity Math and Science Academy.

Pheuphong, MEd Science Education ’16 and a Project SEEEC Teaching Fellow, has been doing a lot of science lately, including a summer-long internship at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colo.  She worked under a principal investigator studying nanomaterials to be used for thermoelectrics.  In particular, they examined materials that could potentially convert waste heat into electricity.

Pheuphong and her research mentor used carbon nanotubes to create thermoelectric materials, creating thin glass films and spraying a coating of carbon nanotubes.  Pheuphong’s research focused on the strategies to produce the films efficiently and how to optimize their performance.

She hopes her experiences at NREL and at NASA position her to incorporate national trends in science education into her classroom at Infinity Math and Science Academy, part of Little Village High School, where she is a first-year teacher.

“It’s interesting to see these bigger trends in education and everyone working towards the same goals,” Pheuphong said.  “Next Generation Science Standards are a recurring topic, and maker spaces came up a lot.  I can see a big picture of where we are and where I am in the bigger scope.”

Two students work on an assignment involving the periodic table of elements in Tammy Pheuphong's classroom.

Her role as an actual scientist is a tool for her to broaden students’ conceptions of study and careers in science.  She works with a number of student lab assistants who stay after school to help her test potential experiments before use in class.

“Last week we tried something, and it didn’t work, but the question becomes, how are we going to make this work?” Pheuphong said. “I want them to know that in this moment, hundreds of scientists are sitting around and doing nothing, because, just like us, they are busy thinking of a way to make something work.”

Pheuphong is creating science experiences for her students in the world outside the classroom as well.  Currently, her students partner with Daniel Morales-Doyle, PhD Curriculum Studies ’15, assistant professor of science education, on research projects.  She also aims to secure a grant for her students to visit the Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Ill.

“I hope that my students, especially the girls, see me as a researcher as well as a teacher,” Pheuphong said. “There is so much to do as a first-year teacher, and it takes a lot of time to plan accordingly, but I’m trying my best to put this all into play.”

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