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.
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 (www.teachengineering.com).
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.”
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
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,”
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.”
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
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
“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,