ASEE PRISM - Feb 2001
Building Tomorrow's Workforce

Engineering schools are forging new relationships with K-12 teachers to help make science and math more exciting to kids.

By Alvin P. Sanoff

Several times a week, University of Washington engineering students Lisa Behmer and Jessica Yellin enter Marcus Whitman Middle School in Seattle and head for the classroom of math teacher Joseph Hardy. There Behmer, a senior majoring in materials engineering, and Yellin, a doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering, join Hardy in teaching math to eighth graders.

University of Virginia

Kids are participating in a summer program that brings teachers to campus for training in math and science.
Rather than using a traditional approach of lectures and drills, the trio uses an inquiry-based teaching method designed to engage students in the learning process. Recently, they asked students to design bicycles for a fictitious race across the state of Washington. As part of that project, Behmer and Yellin brought three bicycles into the classroom, each with a different gear ratio, and asked the students to figure out which would work best given the terrain that the bike riders would have to traverse.  "We set up the class as if it were a consulting engineering firm designing bicycles for the race," says Yellin.

Behmer and Yellin are among some 15 University of Washington graduate students and undergraduates who, with National Science Foundation support, are working with teachers in middle schools in the Seattle area to make math and science more exciting for students. Denice Denton, dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Washington, says that the program  "puts role models in front of kids who can get them excited about careers in math, science, and engineering and, at the same time, helps teachers get a better handle on what mathematicians, scientists, and engineers do so that they can better advise kids on these careers."

The project is one of many in which engineering schools are engaged in an effort to address a growing national problem: the weak performance of American students in math and science in comparison to their peers in other industrialized nations. Recently released results from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study-Repeat showed that American eight graders were outperformed in math and science by students in more than a dozen nations, including Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea,  Japan, Hong Kong, Belgium, and the Netherlands. France and Germany did not participate in the test.

The results are particularly disappointing because in recent years one blue ribbon commission after another has issued warnings about the perilous state of science and math education in the nation's schools, yet little has changed as a result. Dean Karl Reid of the College of Engineering, Architecture, and Technology at Oklahoma State University says that while the warnings have produced a number of programs that he describes as "islands of excellence," a coordinated national effort has been lacking. Says Reid: "We have to recognize there is a crisis and then attack the crisis in a much broader, well-planned way."

Last fall, in a report entitled "Before It's Too Late," the National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century, chaired by former Senator John Glenn, warned that time is running out for action and laid out an ambitious agenda to improve the performance of American students. At the center of the agenda: an intensive program with a price tag of $5 billion to upgrade the quality, skills, and knowledge of math and science teachers.

Citing studies that show a linkage between student achievement in a subject and whether their teachers are certified and have majored in that subject, the commission argued that "the most direct route to improving mathematics and science achievement for all students is better mathematics and science teaching." A member of the commission, Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey, has introduced legislation to fund the commission's recommendations. Holt said the legislation would establish "grant programs for states to improve the recruitment and retention of math and science teachers" as well as " the quantity and quality of their professional development programs."

The legislation would also create academies throughout the nation to train 3,000 fellows in math and science teaching. The fellows would be recruited for a one-year intensive course in effective teaching methods in math and science and, in return, would agree to teach for five years in districts with math and science teaching shortages, of which there are many. According to the National Commission, more than one in four high school math teachers and nearly one in five high school science teachers "lack even a minor in their main field of teaching."

Shortly before the Glenn Commission issued its report last fall, a committee of the National Research Council also focused on the need to upgrade math and science teaching. Its recommendations included a call for the nation's colleges and universities to work with local school districts to "establish a comprehensive, integrated system of recruiting and advising people who are interested in teaching science, mathematics, and technology."

University of Illinoiis at Urbana-Champaign

The engineering department brings students to campus to learn more about science.
Leaders in engineering education have long realized that they have a major stake in the quality of science and math teaching at the K-12 level. Students who are deficient or lack interest in math and science are unlikely to consider engineering as a career. Rep. Vernon Ehlers of Michigan, who along with Holt has led the charge on Capitol Hill for federal support to improve math and science teaching, says that "a preponderance of evidence indicates that our schools aren't preparing our students adequately for the knowledge-based, technologically rich America of today and tomorrow."

The test results from the international exam as well as the decisions made by today's college students about what to study bear Ehlers out. Despite the growing demand for trained engineers, enrollment in engineering schools has remained relatively flat for almost a decade, with the number of bachelor's degrees granted annually hovering between 62,000 and just over 63,000. The supply of engineers, say engineering educators, is simply not adequate to meet demand. In computer science alone, the Department of Labor estimates that postsecondary institutions will have to produce nearly four times as many graduates as they now do to meet demand. The lack of supply has led many employers to hire computer scientists from abroad under the H-1B visa program.

Despite a seemingly endless string of front-page stories about the growth of information technology and the availability of technology-related jobs, OSU's Reid says college students are more interested in pursuing the social sciences than in studying engineering. One reason for this, he says, is the lack of an adequate number of well-trained math and science teachers: "We simply do not place a value on teaching in science and math that is necessary to attract the caliber of people we need to stimulate young people to consider science and math-related careers. There ought to be differential pay scales to reward those who have the special abilities that are needed to teach science and math."

Lending a hand

As the lack of student interest in pursuing careers that require expertise in science and math has become more apparent, a number of engineering schools, like the University of Washington, have entered the fray, developing a wide variety of initiatives to help classroom teachers do a better job of engaging students. Some of the initiatives send engineering students into the classroom to work with teachers and students, while others bring teachers to university campuses where they hone their skills and upgrade their knowledge under the tutelage of engineering faculty.

One of the most ambitious ventures has been launched by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Center for Initiatives in Pre-College Education. The center's main focus is on working with students and teachers in elementary and middle schools in the Troy, N.Y., area. Lester Rubenfeld, a math professor who directs the center, says that it has emphasized "trying to get teachers to change their pedagogical style to take a more interactive approach rather than to just be purveyors of information—and we are integrating computer technology into the process."

The center sends "technology mentors"—RPI undergraduates and graduate students in education from the nearby State University of New York at Albany campus, many of whom majored in math or a science as undergraduates—into 15 schools twice weekly. The mentors serve as resources for the teachers and, says Rubenfeld, "they become part of the educational environment in the building." The mentors help the teachers integrate technology into their classrooms and serve as sounding boards.

"We thought a lot about how to really gets kids interested in math and science," says Rubenfeld, "and decided that you can't go in at the high school level. You have to go back further in time and get kids interested when they are about to lose interest, somewhere between the 4th and 7th grades."

Educators agree that the elementary and middle school years are crucial. If students get turned off to math and science when they are young, it is very difficult to turn them back on in high school. Yet it is in the earlier grades that teachers are least likely to be well-trained in math and science. Janie Fouke, dean of the College of Engineering at Michigan State University, recalls that shortly after graduating from college she took education courses so she could be licensed as a middle and high school science teacher. "I found that a lot of my classmates, especially those interested in elementary teaching, lacked a strong interest in science or math," says Fouke.

University of Michigan

The engineering and education departments are collaborating on ways to teach science in middle schools.

Rick Cleary, associate dean for undergraduate programs at Cornell University's College of Engineering, says that "a lot of elementary teachers didn't have a good experience in science and math and that makes it hard for them to excite their students."

RPI is attempting to address this problem by obtaining funding for a program that would bring a number of elementary and middle school teachers to campus for a year and two summers. The teachers, who would be called Rensselaer Technology Fellows, would learn how to use technology in their teaching and then would return to their school districts to work with other teachers.

As for RPI's existing "technology mentors" program, it is unusual in that it involves cooperation between two institutions of higher education, RPI and SUNY-Albany, and between faculty and students from different disciplines—the sciences and education. It is relatively rare for there to be close cooperation between science and education faculty members, in part because scientists often view their peers in education with a certain disdain. Stephen Director, dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan, sees the lack of cooperation as unfortunate since each has distinctive strengths. "Engineering colleges understand the content, while education schools, in spite of all the criticism that is lodged against them, understand how students learn."

New Partnerships

Michigan is one of several universities at which a partnership has developed between education and engineering faculty members, with the goal of improving math and science education. At Michigan a member of the engineering faculty is collaborating with an education professor on an approach to teaching science in the middle schools that emphasizes having students actually do science. For example, says Director, rather than simply absorbing the basic facts about why earthquakes occur, the students are asked to "think about deep and interesting questions such as 'Why do earthquakes stop?'"

University of Washington

Grad students and undergraduates are working in middle schools to make math and science more interesting.

At Ohio State University, collaboration between faculty in the sciences and in education has gone a step further. The College of Mathematics and Physical Sciences has hired a director of math and science education who is working with OSU's College of Education to increase the number of ed-school students who will become math and science teachers. Ohio State's College of Engineering, meanwhile, is sending teaching fellows—graduate students and upper level undergraduates—into several Columbus public schools to work with teachers in grades three to five.

Much like the participants in the University of Washington program, the fellows, who take a course in education and teaching methodology, spend six to 10 hours a week in the classroom working with teachers and their students. "Historically, it was the College of Education that was principally involved with grades K-12," says engineering dean David Ashley. "But in the last few years the university has made a serious outreach and engagement initiative that includes the College of Engineering. If you had asked someone in engineering five years ago what we did in K-12, there would be nothing we could point to. But now K-12 is something that we are doing across the university."

Similarly, at the University of Colorado at Boulder graduate students from the engineering college spend parts of two days a week in middle and high schools in the Boulder area introducing engineering concepts to students and teachers. "The schools are very receptive because we do not try to teach an engineering curriculum," says engineering dean Ross Corotis. "We try to let them know that science and math principles can be used to create things that make society better."

A different kind of partnership between engineering and education professors exists at Pennsylvania State University at University Park. There education and engineering professors co-teach a course for would-be math and science teachers called "Fundamentals of Science, Technology, and Engineering Design." David Wormley, dean of Penn State's College of Engineering, says that students in the course "gain a sense of the impact that engineering has on solving societal problems. It is an opportunity for us to impact secondary education."

Many colleges and universities have focused their efforts on special summer programs for teachers. The University of Virginia, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Colorado at Boulder are among a number of institutions that bring teachers to campus for training in engineering, math and science.

At Georgia Tech, about a dozen teachers from high schools around the state participate in a summer long program that involves working with a faculty member on a research project. "The teachers very often become co-authors of a paper and they go back to school with lots of ideas for the classroom," says Engineering Dean Jean-Lou Chameau. At the University of Colorado, the engineering school's Integrated Teaching and Learning Laboratory is utilized for summer programs involving both middle school and high school teachers and students. The programs for teachers range from a few days to a few weeks in length and emphasize projects they can replicate in their classes for under $20.

A Tough Sell

Ohio State University

The engineering department is sending grad students into public schools in Columbus to work with teachers.

Still, getting engineering faculty interested in K-12 education can be an uphill battle at times. Administrators acknowledge that faculty members who operate in an environment where tenure and promotion are based primarily on research see little immediate payoff in putting a lot of time and effort into K-12 education. RPI's Lester Rubenfeld says flatly that such efforts "are not rewarded on research campuses. I do not recommend it for people without tenure." Rubenfeld says that faculty members are more likely to become engaged with K-12 education "when their kids get into high school and they realize the deficiencies of the system. Then they get concerned about why their kids' education in math and science is not what it should be."

In that regard, RPI has been instrumental in the development of a program called Project Lead the Way, which began in the 1980s when faculty members helped a teacher at a local high school develop a series of technology oriented courses. Project Lead The Way , which has since become an independently run national program, offers high schools a five-course sequence of pre-engineering courses and provides training for those who teach the courses. Some 175 high schools are participants. The Project has also created a middle school program called Gateway to Technology, a single course with four stand-alone units. Lester Gerhardt, associate dean of engineering at RPI, says that the program is "geared for students who like math and science and are curious about how things work."

n fact, a number of the K-12 initiatives in which engineering schools are involved focus not on average students, but on students who show promise and/or interest in engineering and related fields. Many of these programs are aimed at women and minorities. Cornell's Engineering School operates what it calls the Curie program, which brings about 150 female high school students to the campus for a week each summer to expose them to doing research. Michigan State's College of Engineering participates in a program to enrich math and science opportunities for students in the Detroit schools. Every summer 30 to 40 high school sophomores and juniors take part in a four-week residential experience focused on math, computing and engineering.

A number of universities not only offer summer programs, but also run programs of much shorter duration during the school year that have a more modest goal than improving K-12 science education. These programs are designed simply to expose students to engineering and the sciences. A case in point is Michigan State's mechanical engineering design day. Twice a year several hundred students from schools around the state are bused to East Lansing for the event, which takes place at the end of each semester. They watch mechanical engineering students demonstrate the projects they have designed and take part in a design competition themselves, building bridges out of cardboard and tape or constructing models of the Leaning Tower of Pisa out of Popsicle sticks and tape.

Yet, despite the best of intentions, there is no indication thus far that the proliferation of programs is likely to measurably change the performance of U.S. students in science and math. "All these small efforts won't become synergistic if we continue to do them as ad hoc entities," says the University of Washington's Denton. "We need to make the sum greater than the parts. We need a national campaign."

    Alvin P. Sanoff is a higher-education consultant
    and freelance writer living in suburban Washington, D.C.


  • In an international test of science and math, American students performed worse in math and science than students in more than a dozen nations, including Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
  • Four years after American fourth-graders scored high on an international test of science and math, their performance declined markedly when they reached the eighth grade.
  • This nation's technology-driven economy will add about 20 million jobs by 2008—if we can only educate our young people to fill them.
  • The Glenn Commission found that most nations tend to employ math teachers certified in math. On average, 71 percent of students internationally learned math from teachers who majored in mathematics in college, but only 41 percent of American students did. 
  • Nations that score higher in math on international tests  teach subjects like geometry, chemistry and physics before high school, giving students more time to absorb the concepts. high school students in those countries can then take more challenging mathematics and science courses.
  • Nearly one third of science teachers with 1-3 years experience have considered abandoning their chosen career. The number rises to 37 percent for those with 10-15 years experience.
  • The number one reason for dissatisfaction among math and science teachers is poor salary—cited by 66 percent of those who leave their jobs.
  • Training Magazine reports that industry spent approximately $62.5 billion on training in 1999. Much of the money was spent on basic skills, many of which should have been acquired in school. The nation often pays twice to equip its workforce.