Published: Thu Mar 10, 2011Tennessee Tech University's Holly Stretz brings insight to the relationship between teaching and research that few people come by naturally.
Her ability to turn insight into inspiration in the classroom earned her the Outstanding New Faculty Research Award from the Southeastern Section of the American Society for Engineering Education. The ASEE award recognizes a faculty member who has less than six years of teaching/research experience and who has demonstrated excellence in both teaching and research. The novel research Stretz was recognized for involves fundamental advances in understanding the fate and transport of gold nanoparticles, an emerging commercial material, in surface waters.
Stretz says the scientific method should not be intimidating because it is a reflection of how we learn and how the community came to learn.
"Teaching and research must be integrated; one feeds the other," said Stretz, whose career path has included teaching high school and leading university research efforts. "But the method of research can be overwhelming to many.
"Research is not controlled. There's no guarantee at the end of the week you will understand what you are seeing," she said. "You have to keep asking questions even when you don't get answers.
"Society doesn't often reward that type of effort, but a researcher has questions that don't go away. You refuse to not get an answer. You chase it."
As an assistant professor of chemical engineering, Stretz has played an integral role in the success of a program focused on leading high school teachers through the basics of research in order to enhance their teaching. Through the program, teachers develop a legacy cycle, a teaching module where students are given a big challenge and their task is to decide what education and information is needed to address the challenge.
"Teachers have studied how people learn, so the legacy cycle is parallel to what they know about the process of learning," said Stretz.
Another element of research that takes teachers out of their comfort zone is the need to search for tools they may not have.
"Teachers know what tools they need to use, but researchers often do not have the exact tools they need to understand a system and have to create or learn those new tools," she said.
She said she also believes that the practice of writing about what you learn is essential.
"Research is about finding something novel, but a novel contribution is not enough. You must also communicate so that other people can use it.
"Writing formalizes what you learn," Stretz explained.
An avid hiker as a child, Stretz said she likens communicating about research to discovering a site off the beaten path.
"You have to leave a trail for others, and you say 'You've got to come see!'"
TTU honored Stretz in 2007 with the Kinslow Research Award for the best paper written by a faculty member. She earned her doctorate in chemical engineering from the University of Texas-Austin in 2005. She holds a master's degree in chemistry from Texas State University and a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Texas A&M University.