April 18, 2012
Educating the future: Doctoral student teaching middle school students about science, technology
Scott Bell has always been passionate about science and technology.
Now a doctoral student in computer science at Kansas State University, Manhattan, Bell began his professional career as an environmental engineer. While he enjoyed the work, including time spent modifying computer applications for modeling power plant emissions, he was unfulfilled. Bell returned to college in pursuit of a master's degree in computer science, also serving as a departmental teaching assistant -- and realizing another passion in the process.
He enjoyed teaching.
Following the completion of his master's degree, Bell worked as a computer instructor at several institutions in Missouri and Arkansas. With the support of colleagues at Northwest Missouri State in Maryville, Mo., his most recent teaching job, Bell chose to return to school once more for his doctorate degree.
"It was a really tough decision," Bell said. "Leaving the security of a good job in a place I was comfortable living, but now that I'm here, I'm glad they pushed me."
Bell's research focuses on security in mobile systems. He is examining better ways for groups of people to connect mobile, wireless devices in an ad-hoc network where typical infrastructure lacking.
"We want the users to be able to share sensitive files in such a way that those files will remain available even if several of the devices are taken away," Bell said. "But no single devices should be able to open a file if isn't connected to the network. Additionally, we don't want unauthorized users to be able to access the data files or eavesdrop on the communication channels between the connected devices."
Users should also be able to rejoin the system with minimal effort later, Bell said.
Bell is conducting his research with Eugene Vasserman, assistant professor of computing and information sciences. Vasserman's research interests are in censorship resistance, privacy and anonymity, and secure distributed systems.
But Bell and Vasserman apply their research findings in a different manner: teaching advanced technological concepts to middle school students.
Bell works with Marilyn Fox and Kent Dick, both science teachers at Anthony Middle School, Manhattan, supplementing their teaching with lessons on sensors, computers and other technology. He also has worked with the teachers' science focus groups that met weekly last fall. Fox has been impressed with Bell's lectures at her school.
"His knowledge of science and technology matched with his enthusiasm were a winning combination with my eighth-grade students," Fox said. "He can adjust the level of instruction for the audience, and the students are always excited to have him come to our class. He also allowed me to stretch as a teacher by learning more about sensors and computer programming."
Adapting the research for younger audiences has not posed too much of a challenge for Bell. Simplifying terminology while avoiding making the information overly simplistic has been his primary objective. He frequently uses analogies to help relate his research to students.
"It's really cool when you watch a student fighting to understand something complicated and suddenly their face lights up when they have the 'aha' moment," Bell said.
Bell's research and teaching efforts are funded by a GK-12 fellowship. The INSIGHT GK-12 program partners graduate students studying engineering disciplines with Kansas teachers, giving the teacher a resource to draw upon when developing and teaching lessons incorporating the latest in sensor research. The fellowships are funded by a National Science Foundation grant.
Bell hopes to continue teaching after graduation, which is something Vasserman anticipates his student will be very effective doing.
"He's above and beyond the vast majority of students I've seen in terms of being able to convey the material he wants to convey," Vasserman said. "Not just doing research and talking about it, but explaining it well and engaging them with what he did. He is a great educator."