California State University, Fresno student Kaitlyn Fiechtner found herself at an unusual place for pre-service teachers last summer – NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base. It was part of the California State University system’s Science Teacher and Researcher (STAR) program.

Fiechtner, a senior mathematics major at Fresno State, analyzed NASA’s FOSS (for Fiber-Optic Strain-Sensing system).

CSU’s pioneering STAR program selects pre-service teachers (upper-division science, math and engineering majors and teaching credential students) as fellows. STAR dispatches the fellows for nine- to 10-weeks at national laboratories and other research centers to investigate challenging technical research questions while working with the labs’ engineers and scientists.

The program is coordinated by the Center for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Education (CESaME) at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Fiechtner and California State University, Northridge student Helida Haro were the first teacher-researchers to land at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center. CESaME director John Keller said they did more than strengthen their own capabilities and prospects as future science teachers: “They fostered a cultural shift among members of the lab community there.”

Previously, many of Dryden’s engineers had not considered the potential of teachers and future teachers as researchers, Keller said. They were more familiar with hosting primarily engineering students as interns. “As we anticipated, the research mentors at Dryden were very pleased with the work that the STAR fellows accomplished,” he said.

The experience has boosted the Dryden scientific community’s confidence in teachers, he said, and it also gave the engineers and other mentors at the research center new insights beyond the lab. “By working with future teachers, they began to understand the contributions they themselves can make on the educational system,” said Keller.

A Noyce scholar and Fresno State’s Smittcamp Family Honors College participant, Fiechtner plans to resume her strain-sensing research at Dryden this summer. After last summer, she posted on Facebook that the research center program “is amazing; seriously, one of the best experiences of my life. The engineers and technicians and everyone there is … NORMAL!”

Unique in its coupling of public and private support, STAR is part of the CSU’s Mathematics and Science Teacher Initiative to help provide the estimated 33,000 more math and science teachers needed in California over the next decade.

Related links:

CSU STAR program