PRISM Magazine On-Line  -  January 2000
ASEE Today
On Campus
Making Science Matter to Teenagers

By Kelly Gordon

High school teachers become the students in a materials science and engineering teacher education program at the University of Florida.

Does anyone really use this stuff after high school? What does math and science have to do with the real world? High school students often demand answers to questions like these, but effective teaching can show students why science and engineering are relevant—before they even think of the question.

A four-year-old teacher education program at the University of Florida is helping teachers, particularly high school science teachers, to better present and incorporate "real world" science and engineering ideas into their classrooms. Materials Science & Engineering for Teachers, or MSE Teach, is a week-long summer program run by the university's department of materials science and engineering. The goal, in part, is to help reverse a nationwide downward trend in engineering enrollments. The trend in undergraduate enrollment has been downward since 1983, according to the National Science Foundation.

"If students are going to be accountants or English teachers or any other profession, it would benefit them to have some interest and understanding of the main issues in science and engineering," says Elliot Douglas, MSE Teach program coordinator and an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at UF.

Last summer's program brought 18 high school and community college teachers from as far away as Washington State. Teachers typically spend four days attending morning lectures on polymers, ceramics, metals, and electronic materials; afternoon laboratories are devoted to similar topics. The last day is spent in small groups developing and presenting new lesson plans based on the week's teachings. Lectures and laboratories are taught primarily by UF faculty members, but there are also guest lecturers from companies such as Lucent Technologies.

"We're trying to show teachers how subjects such as basic chemistry and engineering can relate to real world experience," says Douglas. "We're also looking into doing more structured lesson and lab plans, which will be easier for teachers to incorporate into existing lesson plans." The program, which provides teachers with a travel stipend and lodging on campus, is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Michelle Carpenter-Smith, who teaches middle school math and science and a high school engineering course at the Park School in Baltimore, participated in the MSE Teach program last June.

Unlike most of the other teachers in the program, Carpenter-Smith comes from a science and engineering background. She graduated from Drexel University with a degree in materials science and engineering, and worked as an engineer for five years before becoming a teacher. She says much of the program was review for her, but that she did learn better methods of communicating principles of materials science and engineering.

She says students rarely question the relevancy of the science and engineering concepts that she is teaching because she uses a very hands-on approach. "By teaching this way students can see right away in lab how the concepts are going to be used," she says.

She has already added an idea that was developed with other teachers at MSE Teach to her middle school lesson plans: a laboratory exercise about the Archimedes principle. Using a polymer clay, students must build a boat that not only floats, but also carries a certain amount of weight. Students also have to stay within cost restraints and come up with a cost-to-strength ratio. Through this project, students learn about buoyancy and density, and also how issues of cost and strength play against each other in real industrial situations.

Sally Sanders, a high school chemistry and math teacher at Lincoln High School in Florida, says the MSE Teach program got her so interested in materials science she is considering pursuing a graduate degree in the field. Even if only a few of their teenage students are as interested in materials science and engineering as Sanders and Carpenter-Smith are, engineering enrollment might be headed for an upswing.

For more information about MSE Teach see: .


Kelly Gordon is a Prism editorial intern.

On Campus
A Different Take on Teamwork

By Maryam Miller

Cross-disciplinary clinics at Rowan University's new engineering school in Glassboro, N.J., emphasize the importance of communication.

In the course of a single project, Rowan University senior Amol Shah learned all about what can go wrong in engineering without proper communication. Shah and his team, caught up in the difficulty of designing a device that detects cracks in aircraft wings, forgot the easy part—talking to each other.

"The electrical engineers developed the electronics without consulting the mechanical engineers, and the MEs did the housing without really consulting the EEs," says the 22-year-old Shah, who is double majoring in electrical engineering and computer science.

The result? An electrical housing that was too small for the electronics—and a valuable lesson for the students about the reality of design. "Getting an exposure to stuff like this puts you at a definite advantage when you get out and work in multi-disciplinary teams," he says.

Those teams are part of the engineering clinics, a unique aspect of the new engineering school at Rowan. And because it is new—this is only its fourth year—the school has an advantage that others don't. It can pull together the best features of engineering schools from across the nation to produce innovative programs, like the clinics.

Engineering dean James Tracey says the university got recommendations from other deans, many of whom had good ideas that didn't work at their own schools because of the difficulty in making changes to established programs. Chemical engineering department chair C. Stewart Slater says change is what Rowan is all about. "We have an open mind to look at new styles of teaching and learning," he says.

For example, Rowan's engineering students are required to take a sequence of laboratory courses that emphasize faculty mentoring. The twist is there's only one clinic per grade level for all four engineering disciplines—and that's where the teams come in.

Typically composed of one student from each traditional engineering discipline—civil, mechanical, electrical, and chemical—the teams also incorporate fields such as manufacturing and process engineering, computer engineering, environmental engineering, and communications and information engineering. Team projects are often industry sponsored and can range from designing a staircase climber for the disabled to developing voice-activated interface software.

The clinics also focus on improving communication and business skills. In the junior- and senior-level clinics, students not only have to design a project or solve a problem, they must also write it up, present it, and defend it to the school and their industry sponsor. For at least two of the clinics, presentation accounts for half of the final grade.

Originally called Glassboro State College, Rowan received a $100 million donation in 1992 to develop a new engineering school—and a new kind of engineering education. "The timing was quite significant," says Tracey, "because we need a different kind of engineer for the 21st century."

"Our intention is to graduate broadly-based engineers," he says. "They need to be aware of what goes on in engineering and non-engineering fields. We try to stimulate entrepreneurial and risk-taking skills." He adds that "a lot of schools talk about emphasizing communication within their engineering schools, but they don't actually have the communications department working directly with the engineering college like we do."

In addition to a unique course-load, Rowan's engineering program has a unique building as well. With the advantage of starting from scratch, the school built a facility that could handle the ever-changing needs of the faculty and students, as well as allowing the school to continuously update the technology incorporated within the building. The interior, non-load-bearing walls can easily be put up and taken down, and the utilities and cables are set into trenches that are accessible from every floor. Thus classrooms, conference rooms—even the dean's office—can be easily converted into laboratories. It's not likely, however, the dean will have to move anytime soon.


Maryam Miller is a Prism editorial intern.

more Teaching Toolbox articles -  Teaching, Research, Calendar, Metrics