By Barbara Mathias-Riegel
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.
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 www.TeachEngineering.com,
an online digital library that provides hands-on lessons
and activities involving science and math concepts for
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
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
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
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.
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,
"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
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,
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
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,