Joanne Olson, Principal Investigator and Research Director of Trinect, wants people to know one thing: The Trinect program is about improvement.

“We’re improving the experiences and support that our prospective elementary teachers receive; we’re improving the support for current elementary teachers as they face new national standards; and we’re improving the preparation of engineers to face increasing demands to communicate technical knowledge to the public,” said Olson.

Innovation is a key feature of Trinect, the first program of its kind in the nation. Most literature involving co-teaching focuses on teaching in pairs, posing a challenge for this new structure of groups of three. Because this manner of co-teaching is relatively unknown territory, the first semester of Trinect involved a lot of learning for the project team, especially Joanne and her team of researchers.

“We are very interested in how roles play out with three people responsible for teaching. We are looking at different structures [the triads] are trying and how successfully those structures are working.” stated Olson.JoanneOlson

While the program is still in the early stages, the attitude of improvement that Trinect promotes has already made a notable impact on not just the triads, but the students they interact with every day. This impact can be seen in the types of questions students ask and the way they think.

Helping elementary students become familiar with science and engineering and the kinds of thinking that is associated with these fields puts them at an advantage for STEM careers in the future, and also fosters appreciation of these disciplines. To Olson, the timing of the program is crucial.

“Research has shown that 60% of scientists made the decision to pursue their interest in science before age 11. We are hitting right at that age level where kids are starting to see what the possibilities are and what their interests are,” said Olson. “A lot of programs try to improve STEM education in the secondary level. As far as where we are targeting our efforts, the timing is right.” For many students, this is the first time they have been exposed a real engineer and learned how engineering works.

While the Trinect program has led to elementary students being inspired to achieve more and dream bigger, another group of students are also benefitting from the program. Student teachers involved in the project are receiving direct support to teach engineering and science in their future classrooms. This preparation is one of the key aspects of the program, and with an overwhelming number of student teachers having applied for the spring semester, undergraduates in the School of Education seem to agree about its importance.

While these last few months have been a successful start to the program, there are many challenges ahead. The project has many moving pieces, and requires support for current triads, who gained new teachers this spring, as well as the preparation of a new group of teachers and Fellows, starting in the fall of 2016.

Olson is very interested in helping the Engineering Fellows to leave a lasting impact on the teachers with whom they work, and applying lessons learned this year to the professional development opportunities new traids will receive.

Data collection will also consume Olson’s time not just over the next few months but over the long term.

“We want to help NSF as much as possible. They funded this project because they want the research information and to know if this is a model that is successful and productive, so we have to help them get the information they are interested in and that we are interested in as well,” said Olson.

Olson is very optimistic about the future of the program and its fundamental objective: to improve through collaboration.

“Each of us has strengths and expertise to bring to this project, but historically, we rarely get the chance to work together. This project brings us together and helps us all support one another as we work to improve our practice, in whatever setting we find ourselves. It’s a wonderful opportunity.”