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ASEE PRISM
  American Society for Engineering Education
American Society for Engineering EducationNOVEMBER 2007Volume 17 | Number 3 PRISM HOMETABLE OF CONTENTSBACK ISSUES
FEATURES
COVER STORY:  ‘PATCH AND PRAY’ - BY THOMAS K. GROSE
FEATURE: GM SHIFTS GEARS - BY MARY LORD
FEATURE: EYE ON THE WORLD - BY PIERRE HOME-DOUGLAS

DEPARTMENTS
COMMENTS
BRIEFINGS
DATABYTES
REFRACTIONS: Thinking Simple - HENRY PETROSKI
CLASSIFIEDS
LAST WORD: Don’t Overlook Industry - By DONALD A. KEATING & EUGENE M. DELOATCH

TEACHING TOOLBOX
TEACHING TOOLBOX: Knowledge Builders - WITH ‘ELECTRIC PICKLES,’ SPACE-SHUTTLE TILES AND OTHER ATTENTION-GRABBING STRATAGEMS, COLLEGE AND GRADUATE STUDENTS SEEK TO INSPIRE A YOUNG GENERATION OF POTENTIAL ENGINEERS. BY BARBARA MATHIAS-RIEGEL
JEE SELECTS: The Habit of Learning - SCOTT JIUSTO AND DAVID DIBASIO
ON THE SHELF: Our Town, Our World - ROBIN TATU


BACK ISSUES







 
TEACHING TOOLBOX: Knowledge Builders - WITH ‘ELECTRIC PICKLES,’ SPACE-SHUTTLE TILES AND OTHER ATTENTION-GRABBING STRATAGEMS, COLLEGE AND GRADUATE STUDENTS SEEK TO INSPIRE A YOUNG GENERATION OF POTENTIAL ENGINEERS. BY BARBARA MATHIAS-RIEGELILLUSTRATION BY RICHARD BORGE  


Anna Minakyan realizes “I had it in me” to become a mechanical engineer. As a child, she could take apart and reassemble a remote control device without difficulty. But when she was in high school, “no one came to teach us about engineering.”

Now a senior at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Minakyan wants to make sure that future college students are exposed to more than the “basic science and basic math” she was taught. So five times a year, in a program sponsored by the Intel Foundation, she meets with a group of high school girls for one-hour, hands-on demonstrations. She is one of hundreds of engineering undergraduate and graduate students across the country who are mentoring students in middle and high schools.

Such school-college partnerships in engineering and science teaching are now getting a serious evaluation with a National Science Foundation review of its own nationwide K-12 program known as STEM (for science, technology, engineering and math), launched in 1999.

The NSF study won’t be completed for a couple of years. But if precise measurements are lacking, Minakyan’s and other college students’ experiences, as well as the accounts of professors and school principals, offer anecdotal evidence that the effort in grades 6 through 12 is making an impact.

In Minakyan’s case, the same group of girls keeps coming back for more, even though her class is not mandatory. “I feel like I’ve made a connection with them. They understand me and I understand them.” It’s not just the high school students who benefit. The demos—which take a considerable amount of time to prepare—help Minakyan stay more organized in her engineering studies, she says.

“When [teaching fellows] spend time with the students helping them understand engineering concepts, it really drives those concepts home, and the engineering students become much more comfortable with the material,” says Martha Cyr, director of K-12 outreach at Worcestor Polytechnic and a veteran of 14 years of working with elementary and secondary schools. “When they come back to the campus, it helps them to see how the concepts all fit.”


Following NSF’s lead

In the past year, NSF has funded approximately 144 K-12 projects in 46 states, and other institutes and associations are following the foundation’s lead. Among these are the Burroughs Wellcome Fund’s (BWF) Student Science Enrichment Program supporting Duke’s Techtronics; the Intel Foundation at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society (TMS), which supports GK-12 programs in some 70 student chapters nationally. Funds provided for teaching fellows range from $500 community service grants to $3,000 yearly stipends—a major incentive, especially for graduate students.

Since each university or college designs its own Grade 6-12 engineering program, classroom experiences vary widely, from the one-hour demos offered periodically by Minakyan to all-day labs several times a week. And teaching fellows explore creative ways to keep young students engaged.

At Rogers Herr Middle School in Durham, N.C., two graduate students from Duke University wrapped up a two-hour lesson on circuits and circuit components by electrifying a pickle. Wired clips were attached to either end. Once voltage was applied from a standard outlet, the pickle glowed yellow and gave off a strange burnt smell.

“Would you like to taste an electric pickle?” the middle-schoolers were asked, and most were game to try.

Julie Anne Mackey, an engineering junior at the University of Connecticut, demonstrates gas properties at the 2007 Connecticut Invention Convention.
Julie Anne Mackey, an engineering junior at the
University of Connecticut, demonstrates gas properties
at the 2007 Connecticut Invention Convention.

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.

Megan Yokom, an engineering senior from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, works with high school math students
Megan Yokom, an engineering senior from
Worcester Polytechnic Institute, works with
high school math students.

“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, D.C.

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American Society for Engineering Education