NATICK, Mass. (April 30, 2012) -- Maybe their students were enjoying the time off, but a dedicated group of high school and middle school teachers spent their April vacations developing skills at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center that they will apply later in their classrooms.

The 25 teachers, who were joined by three Soldiers, had come for the hands-on training offered at Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, known as NSRDEC, by the National Center for Advancement of STEM Education. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Some teachers had participated in multiple training sessions over the years.

"The teacher training, from my perspective, is the best investment because you get so much back, because these teachers go back to many more students," said Donna Bulger, NSRDEC workforce development manager and National Defense Education Program/Army K-12 STEM outreach coordinator for Massachusetts. "It's where we get the best return on investment.

"What I have observed is that teachers have the most enduring influence with students and just need help in making connections for their students to real-world application and role models in the STEM fields."

Teachers received stipends and optional graduate-level credits for attending the sessions April 17-19. Middle school teachers learned about math with robots, while high school teachers focused on the viscoelastic, mechanical and absorptive properties of polymers. All of the teachers worked with NSRDEC mentors in the center's facilities.

In Math with Robots 1, teachers used Lego Robots to combine math and science.

"We're teaching this from a mathematics perspective," said Nancy J. Priselac, nCASE director of training. "It's a wonderful dialogue when the science and math teachers work together. So we're trying to partner the realm of the scientist and the realm of the engineer, and we do that in all of our programs."

According to Priselac, the training "emphasizes the wheels and the gears, and they learn the math associated with that. They learn how to put the robot together. They learn how to write a basic program for the robot, and they have to do a challenge on day three, where the robots have to perform the way the instructors say. So it's an engineering-design piece that goes right with it."

Priselac said the polymer sessions "are offered in what we call inquiry and design mode, where the inquiry is teaching them the science content that they need to have to be able to build something in design, which will then allow them to use all the knowledge that they've learned up to that point in time to see if they can actually design something using that knowledge."

It appeared that the teachers had far from wasted their vacation time. Bruno Nosiglia, an engineering/technology teacher at Horace Mann Middle School in Franklin, Mass., said he enjoyed the math with robots classes at Natick.

"The robot is just the vehicle for discovery," Nosiglia said. "The real learning was (in) how nCASE professionals taught you how to explore this robot. They could have been using a frying pan, and if they used the (same teaching) method ... it would have been an incredible learning experience."

Nosiglia said the nCASE instructors allowed the teachers to learn from their mistakes.

"Looking at the big picture, when asked, companies say they need people (who) can think for themselves and work as a team," Nosiglia said. "This nCASE approach to teaching is right on that track and leaves a student -- me -- feeling like they really can solve problems they thought were insurmountable."

Joshua Beagan, who teaches STEM education at Joseph H. Gaudet Middle School in Middletown, R.I., also took part in the math with robots classes and came away impressed.

"It was one of the best, most comprehensive, most applicable trainings I have ever attended," Beagan said. "It exponentially exceeded my expectations. The training provided me not only the tools to repeat the incredible activities, but it also provided a rich knowledge base to support the activities.

"In the end, this will help me maintain a high level of student-centered, inquiry-based math and engineering lessons. I just met with my fourth-quarter kids, and these lessons will be integrated into my lesson plans within two weeks."

Sergeant Richard Adams, an Army recruiter based in Peabody, Mass., attended the polymer classes and also had a positive experience.

"The recruiters (who) participate in this training are able to form working relationships with teachers from their recruiting area," Adams said. "This will allow recruiters to assist teachers when they are teaching these classes. This is a very good program."

Bulger said the inquiry-based teaching and hands-on modules are the keys to successful training sessions at NSRDEC.

"The teachers work hard when they are here and leave refreshed and (eager) to get back to the classroom with a new skill set that will benefit their students," Bulger said. "I know it is working, because I stay in touch with the teachers and they share their success stories. It feels great to be a small part of that."