Friday Faculty Focus: Derrick Nero

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January 27th, 2017

UNO and PKI faculty launch a weather balloon with students at the NorthStar Foundation in 2015. (Photo Courtesy UNO)

This week on Friday Faculty Focus, KVNO’s Brandon McDermott talks to Derrick Nero, Instructor of Teacher Education in the College of Education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.


Brandon: Derrick Nero, thanks for joining me today.

Derrick Nero: My pleasure to be here, thank you for having me.

Brandon: I see before you came to UNO, you volunteered as an engineer with at risk youth. How did that shape what you wanted to do later on?

Nero: I just always felt the need to give back. I was afford many opportunities growing up as a youth and when I became an engineer I felt it was my obligation to give back – not to kind of set off in a kind of way in a cubicle. Knowing that students would be fascinated to see someone who looked like them (and) who was in this type of job that most likely they may not have ever met an engineer before. So, I tutored and spent time after school with students, just in the sense of social development and things of that nature. Realizing that with most at risk youth is a matter of opportunity.

Brandon: Now you’ve taken a considerable interest in getting students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics or STEM. Why is STEM education so important?

Nero: STEM education is important, in my opinion, because we cannot get away from STEM. No matter what you look at (for example) we’re here in this recording studio, the fact that this room has a comfortable temperature, No matter where we go we can’t get away from it. So having students learn about the world around him and how they play an integral part in creating that world around him is really important.

STEM basically makes education authentic, it makes it relevant and it makes the student have an investment in their learning because they see direct application of what they’re learning. Also it makes learning truly interdisciplinary – in that the science they’re learning in 3rd period actually ties into the math that they’re learning in the 8th period. Now the engineering side of things to ask kind of a new piece to it, in a lot people’s mind and that’s a great opportunity I have here at UNO to serve in that capacity as the K-12 engineering and education instructor.

Brandon: Talk about the “High Altitude Learning Over Nebraska” or Project HALON you developed.

Nero: What we do we use high altitude ballooning with middle-school and high-school students to help them develop, conceptualize, design, test and actually launch a scientific experiment into near-space orbit which would be about 100,000 feet. The students are quite impressed with what they’re capable of doing as well as the information they get back from these experiments. Once we retrieve the experiments after they come back down to earth, we have the students collect the data, analyze the data and give a formal presentation of their findings.

So, once again we have a case of taking science and making it real for the students, making it relevant for the students, but more so it’s their own ideas -they can come up with anything. We’ve had students send up crickets, to see what happened to a cricket if it reaches that altitude. We’ve had students attach solar panels to the side of the pod to see how much energy they were able to generate as the pod ascended though the atmosphere. So they are varied experiments, but what’s great about it is student developed, it’s their ideas. None of the ideas a trivial, they all have an application some way or another in our real world.

Brandon: You alluded to this already, but are projects like this helpful in getting junior-high or high-school students fascinated or curious about STEM and what kind of feedback have you had from the students?

Nero: Well, put it like this – in the process – Yes, its arduous, “why am I doing this” and everything. But as they start to gain new skills, whether it’s programming, a micro-controller like a Raspberry Pi, whether it’s a learning how a solar panel works, how much light, what type of light does it need to actually make it generate electricity? Once again, having that frustration build into attainment of knowledge and then knowing that “I learned this, in a sense, on my own,” through an experience and then getting the data back – they’re always excited about the next time.

We have two high schools that soon as we picked up their experiments they didn’t even open it, they didn’t even like go into the data yet. But they were like, “Can we do this next year?”  We were like, “of course you can do it next year,” and they were so excited about it. We’ve been really fortunate with this Project HALON that we’ve had a lot of students that are under-represented. We’ve had a lot of female students who have participated and they love it. So they are taking that science interest – that may only be in the books – but now they are actually put into real world applications.

Brandon:  What does that mean to you as an educator and instructor to hear this from the kids – their interest in the STEM projects?

Nero: Well I get excited. Any teacher gets excited when the student has that “aha moment” or, “I get it now,” and more so for me – I love the fact that the students are seeing the application of their knowledge, because that’s what engineering is about.

Brandon: Is there anything else you’d like to add before we go.

Nero: Project HALON is coming up we will have our launch in April – April 21st to be exact – that’s to help kick off in the Nebraska Science Festival. We have a family engineering night that’s going to take place at Hartman Elementary in February and that’s all a part of National Engineers Week, but we’re doing with that we’re tying into literacy and literature with engineering.

We’re inviting the families of the students at Hartman Elementary to come out and to experience engineering in a sense with their students than to see how fascinating in can be and how easy the application could be just seeing some of the concepts and the principles, then hopefully we could build off of that to get more STEM projects more STEM curriculum into the classroom. So it’s kind of like a pilot, what we’re going to do with the family engineering night the intent is to have this spread throughout all elementary schools – to have that component in the schools – even as an after-school program for families.

Brandon: Derrick Nero, thanks again for coming on the show.

Nero: It’s been my pleasure, Mr. McDermott, thank you.

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