How do you use Play-Doh or terra cotta pots and sand to teach engineering? Those are some of the lessons that the University of St. Thomas will be sharing with more than 50 teachers for free next year, thanks to a $100,000 gift from Google.

The St. Paul-based university has been training teachers about the joys of engineering for five years, as part of a program to improve science education in elementary and secondary schools.

The grant, which was announced this week, means that St. Thomas will waive the usual $1,200 tuition fee during the spring and summer sessions, said AnnMarie Thomas, an associate professor of engineering who cofounded the program.

"This is the best Christmas gift ever," she said. "It actually means we'll be able to offer full scholarships to all of the educators who take our classes."

Demand for this kind of training has been growing as schools face increasing pressure to amp up teaching of STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math).

"It's fair to say that very few educators in the U.S. have actually taken an engineering course taught by an engineering professor in an engineering lab," Thomas said. These courses, she said, give classroom teachers the kind of hands-on training that they can share with their own students, from preschool on up.

Engineering is about problem solving, says Thomas. In one class, students learn how to craft a makeshift refrigerator out of terra cotta bowls and wet sand. In others, they may use Play-Doh to create circuits that conduct electricity — what Thomas calls "squishy circuits."

The courses, which are offered on weekends during the school year and in weeklong sessions during the summer, aren't just for scientists, Thomas notes. In the past, they've had librarians, kindergarten teachers and art teachers sign up. The only requirement, she says, is that participants must be educators. To learn more about the scholarships, go to