PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - MARCH 2005 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 7
A CLICK AWAY - K-12 teachers— and engineering colleges 
reaching out to neighborhood youngsters— can log onto an exciting new collection of Hands-on lessons and activities. Photo Illustration by William Duke

By Barbara Mathias-Riegel


At last! After more than two years of planning and a lot of collaborative work among four engineering colleges, the K-12 TeachEngineering (TE) digital library collection funded by NSF is going live. Starting mid-January 2005, engineering college faculty members and students conducting outreach in their communities, as well as K-12 teachers, will be able to access, at, an online digital library that provides hands-on lessons and activities involving science and math concepts for young students.

TeachEngineering comes under the umbrella of the National Science Digital Library (NSDL), which has monitored some 70 digital collection projects in the past few years. "It will provide teachers with a wonderful service," says Lee Zia, lead program director for NSDL.

The key team players in the TE project are engineering faculty members from the University of Colorado-Boulder, Duke University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and the Colorado School of Mines, and an information systems faculty member from the business college at Oregon State University. According to Jacquelyn Sullivan from University of Colorado-Boulder, who is the project leader for TE, the dedicated TE development team combined their years of experience working with teachers and students in K-12 outreach programs to come up with a first-rate curriculum that has an inviting look and feel. "There is tremendous commitment to the vision we shared. We're hoping this collection lowers the bar, so that engineering faculty at the 350 engineering colleges across the nation who have any interest in K-12 engineering can say, ‘Hah! I can do that!' "

That same positive reaction is expected from teachers at the K-12 levels. Martha Cyr, who was with Tufts when she joined this project and is now with the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, notes that "when a teacher goes to the TE site and brings up an activity or lesson, everything is right there. A lot of resource sites for teachers link them to other places where the curriculum looks different and you're never sure what you're going to find. With TE, there's no hop-scotching around."

Most important, says Cyr, is the fact that TE addresses teachers' need to have their curriculum meet state standards in math and science. "A teacher's time is precious, so it was critical for us to come up with a way for teachers to align their state standards with the curriculum of activities and lessons." To do that, explains Cyr, they used the standards from the four states originally represented in the TE team (Colorado, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Oklahoma) and created a grid that correlated them to national standards. For over two years they worked through hundreds of state standards to match them up with national standards, rating the accuracy of the match on a scale of good to poor. Now, when a middle school teacher from Wisconsin goes to the site, for example, she can call up an activity that may have been developed in Colorado, but she can compare it with the related national standards and decide if the lesson fits the bill for her needs at her particular grade level.

Another valuable feature is "My TE," which allows teachers to bookmark a particular activity. They can then create their own reference area that they can return to without going through the entire collection, saving time in planning their curriculum.

As for the lessons themselves, they are generally low-cost, though a few may require a budget. "Some of the curriculum units we developed at Duke are a little more expensive, but we didn't want to not include them because of the cost," explains Gary Ybarra, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies of electrical and computer engineering at Duke University. "The teachers have expressed great appreciation for these particular lessons." One such lesson involves building small solar-powered car units that use a solar panel that costs $15. Even with students working in teams, the cost could come to $100 a class. Yet Ybarra points out that the panels are durable and can be re-used many times. There are no hidden costs or surprises in the TE curriculum—everything is stated fully and up front. "It's also important that teachers know that every single lesson and activity has been vetted," Ybarra says.


Photo Illustration by William DukeMike Mooney, a member of the TE project team from the University of Oklahoma who later moved to the Colorado School of Mines, is leading the development of TE's collection of "living labs"—Web portals to real and archived data from real-world systems for use in math, science, and engineering activities. Each living lab is constructed in a middle to high school student-friendly manner, allowing students to immediately dig into the activities. One lab called "Engineering Our Water" builds upon the rich national data maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey on stream flow, groundwater, and precipitation.

"The aim of the living labs," Mooney says, "is to encourage students to explore, to construct their own meaning, to think critically about data, and to utilize data to perform engineering analysis and design. This can lead students in an unlimited number of directions, from evaluating streams for kayak racing to redesigning a city's transit schedule to minimize passenger travel time." Because the living lab curriculum is stored in the TeachEngineering digital library, it can be searched in the same way as the other TE curricula.

Whether it's a living lab for teenagers on wind turbine data or an activity for PK-2 students on inventing a backscratcher, the lessons and activities provided in the TE collection are both challenging and fascinating to young minds. At first glance, some may appear too advanced for the grade recommended (fourth graders learning about Newton's Law of Motion), but all of these lessons have proved successful numerous times, with students performing beyond expectations. "If we just give students the tools and support to succeed, they always end up amazing us," Mooney says. "It just shows the potential out there."

Jacquelyn Sullivan points out that none of this would have been possible without the mastery of the architecture and systems design developed and led by Rene Reitsma, from the college of business at Oregon State University. The end result is a handsome, user-friendly infrastructure that comes at no cost to K-12 schools. "I had the easiest job of the five in our consortium," Reitsma insists. "I was working with people from four universities, each of whom had different ways of looking at curriculum and each coming with curriculum in different structures and formats. It was a sociological, interesting, and long negotiation, week after week, during which we made proposals as to what pieces were mandatory or optional, and in what order. This took about three months before things settled down to the point where my team of students and I could go to work and come up with a design that offered one concise, consistent approach."

Like Reitsma, all of the team players pay tribute to the many students, graduate and undergraduate, who helped put TE together. "My students are as passionate about K-12 outreach as I am," Mooney says. There is also consistent testimony on how this project has developed strong relationships at the institution level. As Gary Ybarra describes it, "The people [on our team] you can think of as the glue, and the institutions involved are becoming closer because of this collaboration. It's really wonderful to experience this growth collaboration. The potential could be phenomenal."

As the word about TE spreads, the other growth potential is in more engineering colleges jumping on the outreach bandwagon for the first time, or beefing up their existing K-12 engineering initiatives. Going from grassroots outreach efforts to national is exactly what the TE team is aiming to do. "I also think that TeachEngineering is ideally suited for exploring a long term relationship with professional organizations such as ASEE," says NSDL's Lee Zia. ASEE's wide reach throughout the K-12 and higher education communities makes it an perfect outlet for disseminating products and services like TeachEngineering.

Between Engineering, Go For It!, the society's guidebook to engineering for high school students and "Go, Engineering!", a monthly E-newsletter for K-12 educators, ASEE communicates directly with nearly 400,000 people in the K-12 community.

TE's debut on a national level means substantial work ahead. On the TE website, users are asked to contribute their ideas for additional curriculum, as well as to make suggestions for improvement to the lessons. Also, educators are encouraged to submit activities that utilize the living labs in effective ways. "We have to find the resources to fund a system to keep the website up to date," Sullivan points out. "As new curriculum is submitted, it needs to come into a central group to maintain the quality; and we have to respond to the teacher review component. People are going to find mistakes and we need to fix them."

But this next challenge is a plus, not a burden. Sullivan and her team can't wait to see TE expand. "I think of it as creating the kernel for the future, and my intention is for it to grow a hundredfold," Sullivan says. "We've taken the vision, we've distilled the vision into a tool, and we've created a tool that succeeds, involving teachers in the design of the curriculum."

Barbara Mathias-Riegel is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.


A CLICK AWAY - By Barbara Mathias-Riegel
YOU CALL THIS SCHOOL? - By Pierre Home-Douglas
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REFRACTIONS: Keeping Things in Perspective - By Henry Petroski
UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT - Engineers seeking advancement are getting degrees in engineering management. - By Alice Daniel
BOOK NOTES: Getting Smart
TEACHING: Making Them Want to Stay - By Phillip Wankat & Frank Oreovicz
ON CAMPUS: The Write Time and Place - By Robert Gardner
LAST WORD: Inside Washington - By Jim Turner

3rd Nano Training Bootcamp - July 12 - 15, 2005 - Washington D.C.


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