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June 7, 2019

SVSU program inspires teacher to engineer biodiesel assignment for Millington High students

Empowered by a Saginaw Valley State University program aimed at enriching STEM education regionally, a Millington High School teacher gave his students a taste of life as an engineer during a project that spanned the 2018-19 academic year.

Mark Ratza was an enthusiastic member of the latest group of K-12 teachers participating in the Dow Corning Foundation/SVSU STEM Community Partnership, a professional development program that equips educators with training and resources to generate interest in the sciences among the region's youth.

Ratza said the program led him to task 25 students in his 10th, 11th and 12th grade Principles of Engineering classes to spend the 2018-19 academic year building a biodiesel processor. The effort, he said, exposed the teenagers to many different engineering-based sciences and their associated professions.

“At the beginning of the project, many students could only list the work done by one or two types of engineers,” he said. “By the end, most could tell the type of work done by five or six engineers. They now understand the collaboration that takes place between engineers such as mechanical, manufacturing and industrial design.”

Along with building the processor, Ratza's students also collected waste vegetable oil and created biodiesel fuel.

“My goal was to expose students to engineering as a viable career option and help them understand the role of different engineers in the development of a project,” he said.

For Ratza, the project began even before he was selected as a member of the Dow Corning Foundation/SVSU STEM Community Partnership 2018-19 class. His passion for STEM began when he was a K-12 student. While attending Davison High School, a chemistry teacher piqued his interest in the sciences. “I remember having a lot of fun in the class and enjoying all of the labs and demonstrations,” he said.

His professional life began in biochemistry research. “I found the work interesting, but lonely and independent,” he said.

Remembering a positive experience helping others understand STEM while serving as a teacher's assistant during his undergraduate years, Ratza decided to pursue a career in teaching. His first job as an educator arrived in 1989 at Adrian Public Schools before he moved to Beaverton Rural Schools. He next joined Millington Community Schools, where he has worked for 28 of his 30 years in the education industry.

After two of his school district colleagues raved about their experience in the Dow Corning Foundation/SVSU STEM Community Partnership initiative, Ratza applied to participate last year. The opportunity began with a two-week professional development program on SVSU's campus. Ratza and his peers partnered with SVSU faculty and staff as well as Dow Corning representatives to develop strategies for improving STEM education in the region. Aside from inspiring the biodiesel fuel project, the program was valuable for educating Ratza on tips for seeking and securing grants for similar school projects, he said.

The Dow Corning Foundation/SVSU STEM Community Partnership was established in 2013. For more information about the program, go to www.svsu.edu/dowcorningfoundationfellows.