University program designed to improve STEM education in rural Alabama schools

Published: Apr 14, 2022 7:00 AM

By Joe McAdory

Auburn University was awarded a $589,889, three-year grant for the first National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Teachers project at Auburn, entitled, “Project-Based Learning for Rural Alabama STEM Middle School Teachers in Machine Learning and Robotics.”

This project will provide hands-on research experiences in robotics and machine learning/artificial intelligence (ML/AI), for 30 STEM middle school teachers (10 each year) and expand their knowledge of teaching these concepts through project-based learning as part of a six-week summer program.

Part of a collaborative effort between the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, the College of Education, and teacher participants that will engage with project team members in developing curriculum modules using the contents in ML/AI, expected to reach approximately 1,200 students across several school districts in rural and underserved areas of Alabama. The students will gain valuable knowledge relevant to preparing them for an increasingly technological society.

The project aims to provide the following experiences:

1) Professional development activities and pedagogical approaches in the fundamentals of robotics and ML/AI, and a novel platform for research and education of ML-based mobile robots

2) Engage teachers and undergraduate students in hands-on research projects on ML-based mobile robots that match well with faculty mentors’ active research projects

3) Collaboration with engineering and STEM education faculty to develop and implement project-based curricular modules

4) Leadership professional development, and mentoring skills via teacher leader academies

5) Assist teachers to implement the RET curricular modules via academic follow-up.

The project team from the College of Engineering includes Dr. Xiaowen Gong, assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering, who serves as the project’s principal investigator, Dr. Daniela Marghitu (Co-PI), faculty and director of the Education and Assistive Technology Laboratory in computer software and science engineering, and Dr. Thaddeus Roppel (Co-PI), associate professor in electrical and computer engineering.

College of Education project team members include Dr. Melody Russell (Co-PI), Alumni Professor, and professor of science education in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching will assist with the development of curriculum modules, as well as teacher professional development, and Dr. Chih-hsuan Wang, professor, Department of Educational Foundations, Leadership and Technology, will serve as project evaluator.

“We really wanted to reach out to educators from Alabama’s Black Belt region, which is traditionally underserved and there is a high need for programs like this,” said Gong,  “Every year, we will recruit 10 teachers and provide them with education and research activities directed by AU faculty members in electrical and computer engineering, and computer science. We already have more than 10 AU faculty members signed up.”

Roppel, director of the Sensor Fusion Laboratory at Auburn University, specializes in robotics and K-12 outreach. Roppel, Gong, along with a few other faculty members in electrical and computer engineering, and computer science at Auburn, will be teacher participants’ mentors who provide research projects to the teachers. Marghitu will develop the comprehensive web portal of the project and will work with Russell on developing curriculum modules for the middle school classroom in collaboration with teacher participants. Marghitu will also organize in collaboration with Gong and all Co-PIs, a one-week camp in which the teachers will practice teaching the RET curriculum modules.

“We hope this project will improve the content knowledge for students and teachers in underserved areas of Alabama through the development of innovative curriculum modules based on cutting-edge technologies,” Gong said. “This new component will not replace their existing curriculum. But we hope this will spark an interest in STEM-related education and inspire them to pursue this avenue as a career or education focus.”

Educators interested in applying for the program are encouraged to complete this preliminary questionnaire.

Media Contact: Joe McAdory,, 334.844.3447
Xiaowen Gong, Melody Russell, Daniela Marghitu, Thaddeus Roppel and Chih-hsuan Wang are leading the university project.

Xiaowen Gong, Melody Russell, Daniela Marghitu, Thaddeus Roppel and Chih-hsuan Wang are leading the university project.

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