Teaching the societal side of engineering

Posted on 29. Sep, 2011 by in Academic Departments, Annual Report, Beyond Boundaries, Biomedical Engineering, Chemical and Biological Engineering, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Engineering Physics, Features, Industrial and Systems Engineering, Issues, Materials Science and Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, People

Outreach initiative engages middle-school students and teachers

Susan Hagness and Amy Wendt

Susan Hagness and Amy Wendt. Photo: David Nevala.

When Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Amy Wendt (right) was in ninth grade, her teacher asked the class if anyone liked math. Sitting in the front row, Wendt eagerly put up her hand. Then she realized she was the only one.

Now, Wendt is helping math and science teachers ask their students a different question to get them thinking about careers in engineering: Would you like to help society?

Led by Wendt, a UW-Madison team is working closely with teachers, counselors and administrators at six Wisconsin middle schools to develop a new kind of engineering outreach program.  Along with Wendt, the UW-Madison team consists of Philip Dunham Reed Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Susan Hagness (left) and College of Engineering Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Steven Cramer, along with School of Education Professor L. Allen Phelps and Assistant Professor Kimberly Howard. Several graduate students are involved, including Lauren Aneskavich, Kevin Cheng and Tam Mayeshiba from the College of Engineering and Jacob Diestelmann, Stephen Gresham and Tsu-Lun Huang from the School of Education. Edgewood College Professor Amy Schiebel also contributes.

The current list of schools the team will work with includes Lodi Area Middle School, Madison Middle School and Kaleidoscope Academy/Roosevelt Middle School in Appleton, Mitchell Middle School and Starbuck Middle School in Racine, and Westfield Area Middle School. The schools represent a mix of urban and rural schools from different areas of the state close enough for the UW-Madison researchers to visit regularly. “This project exemplifies the Wisconsin Idea,” Cramer says. “It is our hope these students will see engineering in a whole new light.”

Engineering grand challenges
The National Academy of Engineering has laid out a set of major societal issues that will require innovative engineering solutions in the 21st century. The challenges are broad-sweeping and include energy, healthcare and urban infrastructure, among several others.

The Grand Challenges for Engineering initiative first came to UW-Madison in the form of an introductory engineering course spearheaded by Hagness and introduced in 2008. The course, which is now open to students across the UW-Madison campus, is based on a set of modules that asks students to investigate the various political, environmental, ethical and legal constraints behind technical solutions.

The middle school program is an extension of the philosophy behind that course, which targets first-year college students because studies indicate early exposure to the societal impact of engineering helps retain students in the field.

With the new program, UW-Madison engineers are reaching out even earlier in the education pipeline. “Middle school is the time when students start having to make choices about what courses they’ll take in high school,” Wendt says. “This gives us the opportunity to expose them to the humanitarian applications of engineering before they’ve ruled out engineering without really knowing what it is.”

There are additional social issues in middle school that make it an ideal time for outreach. “Middle school is a very impressionable time for students,” Hagness says. “It’s the first time in a student’s academic career when peer influences really start to affect choices.”

Those influences can spread misconceptions about engineers, such as the stereotype that a student has to be a math whiz or will spend their career in a cubicle building gadgets.

The UW-Madison researchers will emphasize instead that engineering can be a powerful gateway to helping society. “At a basic level, I hope to just influence the awareness and attitude of students that some things aren’t just a social issue or technical issue but are a mix of factors,” Wendt says.

Everybody’s doing it
The program will include four classroom modules, each of which will provide up to three weeks of flexible instructional content that science and math teachers can draw from and fit into their lesson plans.

The UW-Madison program is different from other outreach programs because it incorporates the modules directly into regular math and science courses instead of establishing elective courses or extracurricular activities. Every student at the participating schools will be exposed to engineering, rather than only those who self-select to join voluntary outreach programs. “Doing this in core classes means everybody’s doing it, and if it’s a positive experience for everybody, then a student who’s kind of excited about it won’t feel as much of an oddball,” Wendt says.

The program has received a three-year grant of nearly $1 million from the National Science Foundation, as well as additional support from the Plexus Foundation, Young Scientists of America and the Carl Marschke family. The funds cover module materials, questionnaires to examine students’ impressions before and after each module, a
summer workshop for teachers at UW-Madison and travel costs to allow teachers and researchers to frequently meet over the next two years.

Two of the modules will be introduced in the partner schools during the 2011-2012 school year and will present particular themes as multidisciplinary problems. In the solar energy module, for example, students will look at solar cookers, solar water heaters and photovoltaic lights. The restoring infrastructure module will go well beyond building toothpick bridges. Students will learn about the broad challenges involved in restoring bridges across the country, including materials science questions and how electrical sensors can monitor bridges. Students also will learn how engineers retrofit buildings and structures to mitigate damage from earthquakes and hurricanes. During the 2012-2013 school year, the team will introduce two more modules that will address clean water and biomedical challenges. Each module will include classroom activities ranging from pencil and paper assignments to design and testing projects to watching videos about UW-Madison alumni working in the field. “One of our goals is to have a curriculum that goes beyond the scientific method, where you form a hypothesis and test it,” Wendt says. “We’ll look more at how to achieve an engineering goal when you have constraints, so students can get a flavor of the engineering design process.”

Eager for some company
While the program aims to reach out to a broad range of students, inspiring female and underrepresented minority students is a particular goal for Wendt and Hagness.
Wendt says there were few women in many science-related careers when she became an engineer. Yet as the decades went by and other fields, such as medicine and the life sciences, saw substantial growth in terms of female practitioners, the number of women in engineering remained stalled. Women on average make up 18 to 20 percent of the engineering undergraduate student population at UW-Madison. “I’m eager to have more company,” Wendt says. “It seems like a shame to me that girls are missing out on some really exciting opportunities just because they aren’t aware those opportunities exist at the time they start to think about careers.”

Though they know not every student, female or male, will go into engineering after participating in the UW-Madison program, Wendt and Hagness say overall it’s a great opportunity to raise the profile of the profession. “We can inform the students, who will become the general public, and give them a better appreciation for engineering,” Hagness says.

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