McCook to Direct GTRI’s STEM Strategy for Outreach, Research

Published: November 30, 2012

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The Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) Director’s Office has named Leigh McCook the Institute’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Coordinator to better organize institute-level education projects.

A principal research associate for GTRI’s Information and Communications Lab (ICL), McCook will continue to build on established STEM projects and relationships between GTRI and campus, while working to focus collaboration among GTRI’s STEM activities.

“My emphasis is on bringing together projects and passions across GTRI to contribute to STEM education that has an impact on students, increasing their excitement about these fields,” she said. “We will be able to focus on specific opportunities where GTRI's expertise and involvement can contribute to real impacts, thus allowing us to bring our research and outreach experiences to teachers and students in classrooms and beyond.”

McCook says she is ready to organize and work with existing STEM projects, but it’s the infrastructure that she is tasked with building out. “We want to have a more focused effort on our STEM activities,” she said. “There have been a lot of great things going on at GTRI that have touched a lot of students and teachers, yet many of those have been on the individual level. I want to raise all that we do to at the GTRI level by building upon our endeavors and looking for opportunities to collaborate where possible, either through existing efforts or new proposals and activities.”

Strategic Planning

To help further these goals and strategies, a working group composed of interested participants from GTRI’s STEM community is forming. McCook envisions that this will be an ongoing process, and she hopes one of the benefits will be bringing together the researchers who are working on the research and outreach from across the various labs to discuss the role that GTRI can play.

At the beginning of August 2012, McCook met with several core members of this group—which included representatives of the director’s office and researchers who are working with K-12 schools—to begin the formulation of strategy, stating the goals and moving GTRI’s ongoing efforts forward.

The motivation for this is to establish the goals and overall strategy, which will help shape GTRI’s STEM research and outreach agenda and initiatives, while considering the impact and evaluation where appropriate.

“That is how so many teachers come to know and work with Georgia Tech and how many middle and high school students learn about us,” McCook said.

Looking toward the future, McCook will work to establish processes and indicators for determining how to measure the impact GTRI has had on STEM education in the state of Georgia.

The STEM program—labeled STEM@GTRI—will  build on existing partnerships between GTRI and the Georgia Tech campus, as well as with the Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics and Computing, or CEISMC.

“If the faculty and administration of the schools are already speaking with representatives from Georgia Tech, then it might be fairly easy for GTRI to build upon those relationships,” she said.

And, McCook wants to have more problem-based learning STEM activities, along the lines of the work that Carlee Bishop directed at Tech High last spring when she successfully led a class with teacher Elliot Mork. During the class, the students addressed the problem of providing an imaging capability to monitor widespread disasters worldwide and distribute data to relief organizations on demand.

“Carlee and Elliot were able to use this experience to have students solve a real-world problem in the classroom,” McCook said. “They introduced systems thinking and systems engineering to address space mission architecture challenges while experiencing hands-on experience to develop a space mission.”

To build upon those programs and experiences, McCook also will look to other tactics. “In order to quantify a measurable impact, we are initially focusing on an urban, rural or suburban school, with an emphasis on finding that urban school partner,” she said.

McCook added that School of Mechanical Engineering Professor Emeritus Bob Nerem has already established a biotechnology curriculum for the Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy and the B.E.S.T. (Business, Engineering, Science and Technology) Academy High School in Atlanta. This would help take 10th and 11th graders out of the class and into the lab.

In addition, McCook and researcher Jeff Evans are exploring how to use Direct to Discovery (D2D) as one component of this multi-year program. The D2D initiative—a mechanism whereby GTRI and Georgia Tech researchers can partner closely with teachers and students in K-12 schools—is currently deployed with Ware and Barrow County schools, with future plans for Hall, DeKalb, Laurens, Paulding, Forsyth and Fulton schools.

“Through this relationship, we will partner with [Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience] IBB to support the development of a biomedical curriculum at these schools by adapting the technology used in D2D at the middle school level,” McCook said. “The high school students would actually engage the middle school students through their program and research, which would help these eighth graders become interested in these subjects before they even come into high school.”

A longer term vision, McCook said, is to investigate how to build off of IBB’s experience and explore an engineering curriculum path at the high school level that could be supported by GTRI researchers.

“Our team will continue to bring excitement, vitality and good science to classrooms across the state,” said GTRI Director and Georgia Tech Vice President Robert McGrath. “At the same time, we will concentrate our resources, attempting to have direct and significant impact on the future careers and livelihoods of targeted groups of students. My hope and experience suggests that such notable impact can and will be contagious.”


McCook, a 21-year veteran with GTRI, has steadily worked with the Foundations for the Future (F3) program, which supports technology-enabled learning for kindergarten through high school students. Some of its projects have included assisting with D2D.

After earning her master of science in management from Georgia Tech, she began aiding Tech’s Environmental Sciences and Technology lab researchers with technology transfer. “Our major sponsor at the time was the EPA,” she said. “They found that much of the research they funded was staying in the universities. Through education and information, we were able to fill the gap between research and use.”

And part of her responsibilities in working with first responders and emergency preparedness organizations have been developing the training, education, policy and technology development aspects of technology transfer—ensuring that research from the stakeholders gets into the hands of the end users.  

“Coordinating the STEM activities will be a logical extension of my work with F3,” she said, having performed these functions in terms of project management coordination and moving technology from the labs to the end users.

Looking Ahead

Along with McCook’s being named the director, GTRI has also brought in research associate Mindy DiSalvo, recently retired from the DeKalb County School System, who has extensive experience in writing and applying for grants. “This will open up additional opportunities to some outside funding,” McCook said. She also will work with the many researchers who have been participating in STEM projects and initiatives.

This workgroup can also serve GTRI by assisting any researcher working on a contract or grant proposal. “One resource this group can provide internally is to work with GTRI researchers and help them identify areas in their proposals where STEM outreach can be enhanced by demonstrating a deeper connection across GTRI,” she said. “Here’s an example you can pull out for science, for example, or here’s a component you could pull out for math.”

Since the planning meeting, McCook said she has heard from a lot of researchers interested in working with middle and high schools.

McCook also wants to work with CEISMC and the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) on campus to determine ways to evaluate the projects and outreach GTRI conducts. “It’s not enough just to have a program that’s ‘our baby’ and we’ll just keep doing that,” she said. “Research will help us understand what kind of impact the curriculum is having, as well as how various enabling technologies work in the classroom within the curriculum.”