University of Connecticut students have also visited schools toting what Amber Black, a materials science and mechanical engineering senior, calls their “road show,” featuring balloons, bouncing balls, superconductors, space shuttle tiles and pieces of foam mattresses.
Despite their variety, most of these programs share two overall goals, succinctly expressed by Paul Klenk, co-director of Techtronics, Duke University’s outreach for middle schools: “One is to ensure that all students know what engineering is when they graduate from high school; the second is to encourage students to pursue careers in engineering and help them get there.”
The outreach benefits all participants, says Klenk, a graduate of Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering who has been involved in Techtronics since 2001: Young teens gain mentors to whom they can relate; middle school teachers learn more about engineering; and engineering students gain invaluable teaching and communication skills as they learn to describe complex concepts in terms that middle school students can understand.
Kantesh Balani, a graduate student in mechanical and materials engineering at the Florida International University (FIU), has worked with high school students over the past five years on full-day workshops, essay competitions, science experiments and presentations, including one called “Nanotechnology in Today’s World.” Recently, two of the high school students from Balani’s classes went on to summer internships at FIU. One student plans to remain on campus as an engineering undergrad; the other will go on to mechanical engineering at MIT.
“I feel very satisfied when a young student tells me, ‘I came to engineering just because of you,’” says Balani.
Social commitment, Yellow Shirts
Engineering students who sign up to teach teens commonly express the hope of attracting minorities and women to engineering. Another driving force has been concern about the environment. It is something they share in common with the younger students and are able to explore in exercises on energy conservation and recycling.
“Teaching the young also gives the engineering students a way to give back to the community,” says Cyr, of Worcester Polytechnic. That kind of social commitment is something that “is really in the conscience of this generation, that I don’t remember in my generation.”
Yet no one denies that this kind of outreach takes careful preparation. You can’t just plop an engineering student in the middle of a classroom of teenagers and expect immediate teaching success.
“Anyone who is teaching needs some sort of mentoring,” says Robert D. Shull, a materials scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). As president of TMS, which has its own K-12 outreach program and gives awards to standout teaching fellows, Schull himself has nearly 20 years’ experience leading Saturday morning science workshops for young students.
“One of the things you learn is what works and what doesn’t work, such as how to keep the students busy at all times. If 10 children are waiting to use the equipment, that will kill the program right away. You have to be trained how to handle that sort of situation.”
Organizing and mentoring the teaching fellows requires extra hours of work by university and college faculty members, who must also meet with school teachers and principals and help undergraduates juggle class schedules to accommodate the off-campus teaching. Yet the degree of faculty involvement varies with each program. Oftentimes, the fellows find that their peers offer the most valuable instruction.
“I learned from my predecessor,” says Black, the University of Connecticut senior. “Now I teach anybody who is interested in doing outreach with us. I do this because I feel it’s one of the most important things we do. Next year we are starting an outreach class in the science department, an elective class on how to teach the demos.”
Discipline in the classroom is essential to the success of G6-12 outreach. When Lisa Burton and the other teaching fellows from Duke’s Techtronics program present their weekly two-and-a-half-hour engineering lesson at a local middle school, it follows the last class of the day—a time when many students are restless and tired. “Our biggest problem is behavior and keeping the students on task,” says Burton. “If the weather is nice, we try to do activities outside. For instance, we did a unit on rockets in the spring and the students tested their rockets outside as they were building them.” A middle school science teacher once observed to Burton that teaching fellows sometimes face difficulty asserting authority, in part because many are the same age as the students’ brothers, sisters and cousins.
“However, our biggest weakness is also our biggest strength,” says Burton. “It is much easier to relate to these students because we were in middle school not too long ago. I remember what I was interested in and what I did and did not like to do when I was their age.”
Perhaps the keenest observers of whether G6-12 outreach is working are the school principals. For four years, Deirdre Pilch, former principal of Centaurus High School in LaFayette, Colorado, kept careful watch on the results of her school’s partnership with the college of engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Now an assistant superintendent in the school system, Pilch liked what she saw, including graduate students who were able to speak Spanish with Latino high-schoolers.
The university’s graduate engineering students come into Centaurus’ labs and classrooms several times a week as a regular part of the school day. On both the CU and Centaurus campuses, these teaching fellows wear yellow shirts emblazoned with their group name and motto: “TEAMS” (Tomorrow’s Engineers . . . creAte . . . iMagine . . . Succeed.).
Pilch calls the CU teaching fellows “the field experts,” noting that, “they bring in the most recent research and technology and the most recent projects that are around that kind of work. They have become tremendous resources in terms of helping my classroom teachers to take it into the practical world.”
Barbara Mathias-Riegel is a freelance writer based in Washington,