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From left: Flora Mercader Trejo, me, and Flora’s husband Raul Herrera Basurto, who’s a professor at another Querétaro university and also a past CENAM employee. Credit: A. Veraza/UPSRJ

Teaching Metrology Abroad as a Fulbright Specialist

Georgia Harris, Program Leader, NIST Office of Weights and Measures

It seems that I have been a teacher nearly my entire life. One of my first jobs as an early teen was helping to teach gymnastics to elementary students. Before and after I earned my black belt in Tae Kwon Do, I taught a women’s and children’s classes. In the world of weights and measures and laboratory metrology (metrology is the science of measurement), about 40 percent of my time each year is spent teaching, designing new courses or webinars, updating and improving training, and training or developing new trainers.

I love that moment when my students’ “light bulbs” come on and I know that they’re getting something, especially when that something is the ability to make high quality, credible measurements.

Working with weights and measures laboratories has provided me with the opportunity to train metrologists in every state. In addition, I’ve also taught in Canada, Mexico, France, the United Kingdom, and South Africa. When I took a mid-career retirement class, we were asked what we would miss once we retired, and my first instinct was “travel.” So, not only do I have a passion for teaching, but also for travel and international collaboration.

The Fulbright Program is the U.S. government’s premier international educational exchange program. I first heard about the program when I was asked to mentor a Fulbright Scholar from Albania whom my division had sponsored to come work and study with us for nine months. Later, while conducting outreach at a meeting of the American Society of Engineering Education, I met some Fulbright representatives who told me about how I could become a traveling professor under the Fulbright Specialist Program.

Teaching “Fundamentals of Metrology” to my engineering professor “students” at UPSRJ in Querétaro, Mexico. Credit: R. Osnaya/UPSRJ

So, when I learned sometime later that my friend and colleague Flora Mercader Trejo was looking for collaborators to share ideas about integrating metrology and hands-on experiments into the engineering curriculum at the Universidad Politecnica de Santa Rosa Juaregi (UPSRJ) in Querétaro, Mexico, I immediately suggested we try to set something up through Fulbright. Flora, whom I first met through NCSL International, was previously an employee at CENAM, the Mexican equivalent of NIST, and had been working for the past several years to develop the metrology engineering curriculum at her university. I was familiar with her work before even we met because one of her students had won the Joe D. Simmons Memorial Scholarship, which was established to provide support to students considering careers in metrology.

After getting all the paperwork and applications squared away and approved, we held a two-week session at UPSRJ in late October and early November 2016. We quickly learned that we had to be flexible and creative. For instance, the university’s power was out when we arrived for the first day of class. We also needed to gather enough precision instruments and standards for the class to use. I shipped some from NIST, and several of our student professors volunteered to bring some as well, but we had to make special arrangements with a few different manufacturers to get the rest. Despite the logistical quasi-nightmare, we got everything in time, but only just.

Because it’s part of the university’s mission to promote bilingualism and international citizenship, they wanted the course to be taught in English by someone whose first language was English. I repeatedly confirmed during planning that the course would be taught in English so that everyone attending knew ahead of time, but I still found myself practicing my Spanish listening and speaking quite a bit more than I had expected to!

Ultimately, the Fulbright Specialist grant let us teach nearly 30 engineering professors about metrology and adult learning methods, conduct outreach for about 120 engineering students, and to share ideas for improving and extending metrology education and training at CENAM. While at CENAM, I was honored to receive a certificate as an “activista” for metrology education and training from the CENAM director, Dr. Victor Lizardi.

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Flora and Raul took me to the Old Town area of Querétaro and had my name put on a sugar skull, a traditional item used as an offering, for me as a gift. Credit: G. Harris/NIST

Our visit just so happened to coincide with the celebration of the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos). So, in the middle of the first week of class, I was privileged to join the people of Querétaro as they honored their ancestors. I also enjoyed experiencing traditional meals and several types of mole, including almond, negro, red/poblano, and chocolate!

The Fulbright Specialist experience provided me with an opportunity to tie together my passions for international collaboration, teaching, and travel. I think we gave the professors who participated many ideas about how they can add hands-on metrology instruction to their engineering classes, and they gave us a lot of insight about how to integrate metrology instruction into a formal academic curriculum.

Our collaboration with UPSRJ is ongoing, and we have a paper and presentation on the exchange in the works for the NCSL International conference in August 2017. The NIST Office of Weights and Measures, along with our colleagues at both UPSRJ and CENAM, plan to continue gathering data so we can assess the longer-term impacts of our collaboration.

I’m looking forward to the chance to continue working with my Mexican colleagues. It helps that Mexican food is some of my favorite!

This post originally appeared on Taking Measure, the official blog of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) on March 8, 2017.

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About the Author

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Georgia Harris joined the NIST Office of Weights and Measures in 1990. Her work includes proficiency testing, documentary standards activities, and education and training of laboratory metrologists, as well as metrology outreach efforts primarily at the university level. In her spare time, you can probably find her hiking, camera in hand, with her husband.

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NIST promotes U.S. innovation by advancing measurement science, standards and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life.

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