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David T. Allen

Lone Star Pioneer

An air-quality expert works to put Texas at the forefront of precollege engineering.

By Mark Matthews

After most of a career spent studying smog, engineering Prof. David T. Allen is now intent on blowing some fresh air into high school science.

For more than a dozen years, the University of Texas, Austin, chemical engineer has donned a hard hat and lab coat to lead hundreds of researchers in measuring particulates and ozone spewed by vehicles, refineries, and chemical plants in eastern Texas. Their findings, recorded in scores of papers as part of the 2000 Texas Air Quality Project and later studies, helped secure Allen a prominent role in green engineering, including a seat on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s science advisory board and editorship of a new American Chemical Society journal devoted to sustainability.

Allen still directs the Center for Energy and Environmental Resources at the Cockrell School of Engineering and teaches a popular freshman course on sustainability. But much of his effort nowadays is focused on the precollege years, training high school teachers and developing curricula to ensure that future engineering students enter college better prepared — and in much larger numbers.

A Texas-size opportunity arrived in 2006, when the state mandated four years of high school math and science. That meant a year each of biology, chemistry, and physics, but the fourth year was wider ranging; it could be some combination of physics and chemistry, “principles of technology,” or engineering. “It sparked my interest,” Allen recalls. He saw the chance to create a solid, yearlong course in engineering design.

“Texas has 250,000 high school graduates a year. If one in 10 is interested in engineering, that equals 25,000 kids a year,” he explains. “We could attract thousands to engineering. It struck me as really important for us to be engaged in the implementation of this new course.”

Since engineering only recently entered precollege teaching, many authorities shrink from introducing a full course at that level, and instead advocate integrating engineering within the regular science curriculum. Allen and colleagues Cheryl Farmer, Richard Crawford, and Leema Kuhn Berland don’t reject that approach, but aim for more. Funded by the National Science Foundation’s Mathematics and Science Partnerships, they first added an engineering component to UTeach, the successful graduate-level preservice training program for science teachers. Then, prodded by NSF, they set out to develop and test a high school engineering course. Built on a foundation of learning research, it would be, as they describe, “couched in the context of a rigorous engineering design process, and scaffolded to build engineering skills and habits of mind.”

With no nationwide K-12 engineering standards to guide them, they framed their own: Students should emerge with an understanding of engineering practice, process, skills, and habits of mind, and they should advance in math and science. The team came up with what they call STEM-design challenges “in which students are posed with a design challenge that can only be completed through the purposeful application of engineering principles and relevant math and science concepts.” One unit, Pinholes to Pixels, has students design and build a pinhole camera. They explore early camera technology; find out what needs the camera must fulfill; brainstorm designs; mathematically model camera size, aperture, target object, and distance between the object and the camera; and build, test, and refine their designs. The overall goal is both to teach the engineering design process and get students “excited about the inherent creativity” of engineering, Allen says.

Tested and refined at seven schools, the course is in 25 schools this year and will be in 100 next year, potentially reaching thousands of students. The team is grappling with how to tailor the course for a range of paces so it can successfully be taught in highly rated schools and disadvantaged districts. “We really want to reach students who are going to be top-performing math and science students, and excite and motivate students who may not be attracted to math and science,” Allen says.

If successful, this high school engineering course will mean a change in approach at the college level. Allen says freshman programs will need to adapt to a cohort already grounded in key engineering principles and find new ways of enriching the undergraduate experience.


Mark Matthews is editor of Prism.

University of Texas at Austin & iStock Photo


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