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American Society for Engineering EducationSEPTEMBER 2007Volume 17 | Number 1 PRISM HOMETABLE OF CONTENTSBACK ISSUES
What Price Security? - By THOMAS K. GROSE
Team Player - ALVIN P. SANOFF
A Network of a Different Stripe - By DON BOROUGHS

Refractions: Confusing Calendars - By Henry Petroski

Click. Build. Learn. Digital K-12 engineering courses expand with stress on quality, fun. BY BARBARA MATHIAS-RIEGEL
JEE SELECTS: The ‘Random Madness’ of Work - BY JAMES TREVELYAN


TEACHING TOOLBOX:  Click. Build. Learn. Digital K-12 engineering courses expand with stress on quality, fun. BY BARBARA MATHIAS-RIEGEL - ILLUSTRATION BY DAN PAGETEACHING TOOLBOX:  Click. Build. Learn. Digital K-12 engineering courses expand with stress on quality, fun. BY BARBARA MATHIAS-RIEGEL - ILLUSTRATION BY DAN PAGE  

Whoosh-whoosh, whoosh-whoosh.
The sound of their heartbeats startled the 12 North Carolina sixth graders, who had expected more of a tick-tick noise.

Two sixth grade students in the Duke Techtronics After-School program at Rogers-Herr Middle School in Durham, N. C., work on soldering their heart monitor circuit.More surprising, perhaps, was how the students produced the sound—using an electrocardiograph they built from a kit and heart monitor circuits that they applied to their own bodies.

The moment marked the culmination of an after-school course in engineering concepts and heart anatomy conducted by undergraduate and graduate Techtronic Fellows at Duke University.

And the experience won’t be limited to these 12 pupils at Rogers-Herr Middle School in Durham, N.C. The Fellows plan to make it available to teachers across the country through the digital library collection of TeachEngineering (TE).

This is just one example of how TE has been growing in robust and interesting ways since its debut in January 2005.

TE is a multiuniversity partnership that has developed K-12 engineering education curriculum modules that are standards-based, free and available over the Internet ( It aims to equip teachers with lessons in science, math and engineering that are creative, exciting and proven to work. Funded by the National Science Foundation, TE has partnered with ASEE, which assists with marketing and dissemination.

The North Carolina heart monitor exercise offers the kind of hands-on approach TE favors–and one that kids seem to enjoy.

“By building the inexpensive EKG and heart monitors, the students learned to extract biological signals in a real world context to help them learn about their own bodies—and they like that,” says electrical engineer Gary Ybarra, director of Duke’s outreach program Engineering K-Ph.D.

TE began about five years ago with a core team of engineering faculty members from the University of Colorado-Boulder, Duke University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the Colorado School of Mines, as well as an information systems faculty member from the business college at Oregon State University.

To date, the team has published some 400 activities and 200 lessons covering 30 curricular areas. Impressive as that is, the TE team feels it is not enough.

“We want other people to publish their lessons and activities in the TE digital library so that it will grow and become a resource that is populated by people across the nation,” says Ybarra, a member of TE’s core team. “That is our long-term goal.”

Forming partnerships

Jed Lyons, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of South Carolina, proudly claims to be “the first external guinea pig” to publish in TE. Lyons requires his graduate teaching fellows to develop several lesson plans in summer workshops for middle-school teachers. From those workshops, Lyons selects the best to share with TE. One lesson chosen shows students how to make stereo speakers out of a yogurt cup, coil and a magnet connected to amplifiers. Another illustrates an example of how civil engineers must deal with weight and support. In it, kids use two bathroom scales with a two-by-four between them to explore how the length of the board, or putting different people on the board, affects weight measurements. More lessons are definitely on the way, Lyons says.

Other institutions planning to partner with TE include the University of Maine, University of Virginia and North Carolina State University. TE is encouraging all schools, associations and organizations with interest in K-12 outreach to jump on the bandwagon. According to TE team project leader Jacquelyn F. Sullivan of the University of Colorado, there’s something in it for everyone. “Many of us in the core group have partnerships with our regional school districts where we have an already-established, trustful relationship with teachers who would be able to classroom-test the curriculum. And of course, fix it.”

With the curriculum’s growth comes the challenge of quality control and efficiency. Paul Klenk, the TE project director for Duke, works closely with the Techtronic Fellows to prepare potential lesson plans using the TE template. Quality is always a priority during the preparation process, which also provides an opportunity to find faster and easier ways to publish in order to help potential new partners join TE, Klenk says.

“We have just developed a list—a rubric—of what the criteria for publishing in TE should be—all the things you would expect to have in a well-written lesson plan,” Klenk says. “As we bring in new partners—as well as our own material—we want a more formal review process similar to a journal article. One or two different (outside) reviewers have to look at it. We intend for this to be a very quality resource.”

And what’s in it for new lesson plan contributors? For one thing, they don’t have to worry about developing a Web site; TE takes care of that. A Web site is also the best possible vehicle for dissemination, a typical requirement for NSF grants. “We want it to be a badge of honor to have published with TE,” says Klenk.

That honor is embodied in a recent major partnership between TE and Engineering Pathway (EP), the comprehensive digital engineering education library based at the University of California at Berkeley. According to Sullivan, TE will by no means lose its identity but rather will exist as a stand-alone collection within EP. “This partnership with Pathway is a good thing, because it will increase access and traffic to TE,” she says.

Alice M. Agogino, the Berkeley professor of mechanical engineering who heads Pathway, considers TE the library’s premier collection. “There’s great synergy here,” she says. The partnership with TE “makes us more attractive for professional societies.”

Filling holes

According to Sullivan, TE has spent the past 18 months studying what teachers need and want, comparing this with what TE offers. “We found there were giant holes, so we’ve been working very diligently to fill those gaps,” Sullivan says. Whether teachers need to know about the body’s respiratory system, rock cycles, ecology or weather forecasting, they should be able to find it in TE, thanks to an influx of new lessons and activities. Workshops for teachers are also being offered on how to use the TE Web site, as well as how to submit their own lesson plans for publication.

One of the biggest hurdles in the past two years has been finding the ideal method for aligning the TE curriculum with state teaching requirements. Originally TE developers used standards from the four states represented by the TE team and correlated them with national standards. “Our plan didn’t work, but it was a good learning opportunity,” says Martha Cyr, K-12 Outreach director at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. After looking at several different options, Cyr and other TE team members, including Rene Reitsma from Oregon State University’s College of Business, agreed on an approach that incorporates standards from every state. “Ultimately, this benefits the K-12 teachers from all 50 states because the resources will be more accurately matched to the standards that they are required to meet,” Cyr says.

According to Reitsma, TE is working on ways to help teachers understand how standards compare between states and whether particular standards apply to specific items in a curriculum.

Some things in TE have been tweaked a little. Living Labs—Web portals to archived data from real-world systems—remains a favorite part of TE’s collection. “We’re concentrating on the same Living Labs as we did in the past two years: wind and water,” says Mike Mooney from the Colorado School of Mines. “But we’ve made the graphical interface more kid-friendly by using Google Maps, a terrific resource that is easy to understand and appealing to the students.”

Mooney describes a lesson in which students determine whether wind turbines are practical for a particular site or city. By accessing several locations around the country that have real-time wind data from the National Weather Service, as well as using archives of wind data, the students develop a graphical user base using Google Maps.

“We ask students to do basic statistical analysis, and by going to sites near or at their hometown, it’s more interesting in context to their life,” Mooney says.

Living Labs is primarily for middle and high school, but Mooney’s team is looking at elementary school as well. “We already know that elementary teachers are using Living Labs and simplifying it for their classes,” he says. “Renewable energy is such a hot thing right now that the kids are really interested in it. It’s a good resource for teachers.”

The key to TE’s success lies not just in a quality curriculum but in reaching K-12 teachers and showing them how the system works. Sullivan notes that ASEE helps with marketing strategy by allowing TE to tap into the society’s various publications and services. “ASEE is our intellectual partner,” says Sullivan. “We’re pushing hard together.”

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




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American Society for Engineering Education