PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo JANUARY 2006 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 5
A POWERFUL FORCE - By Alice Daniel - Whether it's cozying up to stormtroopers or the state legislature, Boston Museum of Science's Ioannis Miaoulis will stop at nothing when it comes to introducing engineering to children in Massachusetts.

By Alice Daniel
Photograph by Steve Marsel

Talk about electromagnetic force! Ioannis Miaoulis, president of the Boston Museum of Science (MOS), believes that engineering should be a part of everyone’s education—and he means everyone. He’s as enthusiastically wedded to this vision as some people are to Star Wars, a relevant analogy considering the museum recently opened an exhibit that uses the Star Wars culture as an entrée to understanding technology. The $5-million exhibit, Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination, was co-produced by Star Wars creator George Lucas and includes props and costumes from all six films, including Luke Skywalker’s gravity-defying “landspeeder,” which, yes, teaches visitors about electromagnetic force. Rows of Star Wars androids are utilized to help explain advances in robotic technology.

FUN AT THE BOSTON MUSEUM OF SCIENCE: A demonstration at the the theater of electricity.This is just one of the many multidisciplinary approaches Miaoulis advocates to make America less technologically illiterate. Without widespread public engineering education, the United States will soon lose its international prominence to countries like China, Miaoulis says. “We are producing generations of people who don’t understand how the things they use on a day-to-day basis actually work,” he says. Nor are kids as readily able to visualize building, constructing and manipulating 3-D objects, a skill that is lost due to time spent in front of the computer or television.

Miaoulis first realized how little students were learning about the way the modern human world was designed when he visited public schools as the dean of the School of Engineering at Tufts University, a position he held from 1993 to 2003. “Kids spent about a month learning how volcanoes work and no time learning how cars work,” he says. “How often do you find yourself in a volcano compared to a car?”

One reason for the lapse was a science curriculum based on standards set in 1883, a time when agriculture was the mainstay for most of the population, the life expectancy was 47 years and there were no televisions, no planes, no cars and no phones. That year, a committee at Harvard created statewide standards for science education that focused almost solely on the natural world, standards that were still being used at the turn of the next century.

In an effort to tackle this problem, the Athens, Greece, native armed himself with statistics and headed straight for the state board of education. Miaoulis convinced them that engineering is a great way to make science and math more engaging to youngsters, and in 2001 he spearheaded the introduction of engineering into the Massachusetts K-12 science and technology curriculum, a move unprecedented in state education. Currently, all fifth and eighth graders in Massachusetts are being tested in engineering, and starting in 2008, an engineering test will be among four science options high school students must pass in order to graduate.

“Some people think you need to know all science and math to do engineering, but you can do it at different levels,” Miaoulis says. “Engineering is a wonderful way to implement project-based instruction.” Second graders, for instance, can design and build an outdoor habitat for a pet rabbit, an engineering problem that involves math for measurements, science for climate control, teamwork and participation. It’s a notion that’s readily demonstrated at MOS where a new program called Design Challenges lets children solve basic engineering problems, such as building a proper habitat for a ferret with a variety of materials. The solution is then tested and the results are e-mailed to the kids.

The museum has always been active in trying to educate children about technology. More than 250,000 schoolchildren visit the museum each year, making up about one-sixth to one-eighth of its total annual attendance. The museum, Miaoulis realized, was the perfect platform to take his campaign beyond state lines. He left academic research in 2003 to become the president of the museum and to embark on an even more ambitious effort to introduce engineering into schools nationwide by 2014.

“He’s an engineer at heart, and engineers like to solve problems,” says Christine Cunningham, who worked with Miaoulis at Tufts and is now the vice president of research at MOS. “It’s become the engineering problem he wants to solve in his life. He imagined different solutions and designed a system that’s working.” That system is the largest of its kind in the country, the National Center for Technological Literacy. Headquartered at MOS, the center has 50 employees who develop and teach curricula, provide workshops for teachers, partner with universities and museums nationwide and establish hubs in different states to work with teachers and legislators on introducing engineering into public education.

A Little Engineering, A Little Eating

“Miaoulis is good at mixing disciplines to create significantly improved learning experiences,” says MOS Chief Operating Officer Wayne Bouchard, who also worked with Miaoulis at Tufts and has seen him use his own hobbies to parlay engineering principles. In fact, when Miaoulis first became dean at Tufts, he was faced with an attrition challenge. Tufts was losing about a fifth of its engineering students to liberal arts after the first year. Students said they just didn’t find engineering interesting, which was ironic considering the only courses they had taken were math and science. To address the lethargy, Miaoulis and his faculty created 60 playful introductory courses based on their own passions and interests, such as designing musical instruments and microbrewing.

Miaoulis, who grew up fishing, taught Life in Moving Fluids, a fluid mechanics course from a fish’s point of view. He also taught a heat transfer course that took place in a kitchen lab. An epicure who checks out the Zagat guide online before any trip, Miaoulis always appreciated the end of each session, when students got to eat the experiment. “These courses made math and science relevant,” he says. “We became the only engineering program where more students were transferring into engineering from liberal arts than the opposite.” And many of these students were women. Under Miaoulis’ tenure as dean, the number of female students increased by 26 percent and the number of women faculty members tripled. In a parallel development, Miaoulis also founded the Center for Engineering Educational Outreach at Tufts, which offers professional guidance for teachers to take engineering to the classroom.

“Miaoulis had extremely high expectations of all of his students, but at the same time he was very collegial, always inviting us over for dinner, having parties,” says Alexis Abramson, a Tufts graduate and mechanical engineering professor at Case Western Reserve. While Abramson always enjoyed the food, the high academic expectations hit home one cold New England fall day when Miaoulis required her to become scuba-certified. Abramson was managing the biomechanics lab at Tufts, and Miaoulis wanted her to help collect specimens off the Massachusetts shore. Miaoulis had a scientific license, and he and his team would go diving in the spring and early fall to collect lobsters, crabs, sea urchins and starfish. On one occasion, Abramson says, Miaoulis’ passion for fine food and his enthusiasm for mixing disciplines took over and he would grab a bit of seafood for personal gain, later cooking it for his students.

It’s this inherent enthusiasm that carries over to Miaoulis’ public-education goals. When researchers at the Center for Technological Literacy did an initial engineering curricula search, they found very little was available for elementary students, even internationally. The best solution, Miaoulis concluded, was for the museum to create and publish in-house storybooks with engineering themes from different parts of the world. For instance, in one story, an engineer solves a drinking water problem in India by building a filtration system, a task that young students can do on a smaller scale in the classroom. The literacy center also publishes a book for high schools that satisfies all of the technology standards and 80 percent of the physics standards in Massachusetts schools. A quarter of the state’s schools now use the book, which offers in-depth profiles of 32 engineers who have interesting jobs and includes laboratory work that’s exciting to youngsters, such as designing a better running shoe.

Miaoulis’ ambition to infuse engineering into public school education is gaining momentum nationally. Several states in New England are considering significant curriculum changes as are Arkansas, Indiana, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Ideally, Miaoulis says, he would like universities to offer an engineering pedagogy track for aspiring teachers. Meanwhile, he remains passionate about his initial goals. Half of his time is spent traveling the country, much like a politician or an old-fashioned revivalist preacher, selling his beliefs that engineering must be taken seriously in public education. “He gets stormed at the end of his presentations,” Bouchard says. “People say, ‘Can you come and talk to my faculty, to my politicians, they need to hear this.’ He comes back with 50 business cards and sets up travel to new places. It’s not just a vision, it’s happening in real time.”

Alice Daniel is a freelance writer based in Fresno, Calif.


A NEW ERA - By Corinna Wu
A POWERFUL FORCE - By Alice Daniel
A MIND FOR DESIGN - By Pierre Home-Douglas
horizontal line
REFRACTIONS: Celebrating Bicentennials - By Henry Petroski
A BROADER PERSPECTIVE - Some engineering students manage to squeeze study abroad into their tight schedules. - By Margaret Loftus
TEACHING: A Push for Participation - By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz
BOOK REVIEW: The Engine That Soared - By Robin Tatu
ON CAMPUS: Fuel for Thought - By Lynne Shallcross
LAST WORD: In Search of a Sputnik Moment - By Daniel Mark Fogel


ASEE logo