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High school students at a recent robotics competition at the University of Illinois at Chicago utilized basic engineering skills and knowledge that educators are hoping to introduce to more elementary and high school classrooms.

Educators engineer programs to excite students about science

by Julia Hawes
March 05, 2009

Show kids how to design the communities in SimCity or teach them to make robots, and the new mindset could improve related math and science skills, educators are saying.

As an added bonus, the students find out they just tackled some basics of engineering and they suddenly begin to see how a technical field relates to their own lives.

Educators in the Chicago Public Schools and programs throughout the country are looking at the best ways to integrate an often intimidating subject in elementary and high school classrooms.

In Chicago, engineering is being incorporated most commonly into after school programs. But the school district also has opened schools focused on science, technology, math and engineering, said Michael Lach, of the CPS Office of High School Teaching and Learning.

The ACE Technological Charter High School on the South Side competed at a regional robotics competition at the University of Illinois at Chicago this past weekend along with schools from throughout Chicago and the Midwest. The school placed in the top half of the contenders.

The Washburne Middle School in Winnetka participated in the National Engineers’ Week Future City Competition in February. Students created their own simulated, self-sufficient cities for this competition and the Washburne team finished first in the regional competition.

Greg Pearson, a program officer at the National Academy of Engineering in Washington, D.C., supervised the most recent study evaluating engineering in schools grades K-12.

“The most intriguing idea for me personally is that engineering, because of its natural connections to mathematics, science and social science, is potentially positioned to become a natural integrator between existing subjects that tend to be taught in isolation of one another,” Pearson said.

The team, which included Lach, surveyed the current approaches of K-12 engineering programs. They looked at available materials, from 20-page pamphlets to enormous textbooks, without finding a consistent approach to the subject.

“Basically, what we found, is that the nature of the curriculum projects are quite diverse—they have certain strengths and weaknesses,” Pearson said. But the general consensus seemed to be that when done well, engineering projects are meaningful to a student’s personal experience.

Understanding how a bridge is constructed - or a whole city - is easier to relate to than a more abstract geometry problem, Pearson explained.

“Hands-on experiments in science, although they’re interesting because they’re more active, don’t have any apparent meaning for kids,” he said. “Engineering has that potential. At its core, it’s a problem-solving technique, through iteration, experimentation, inquiry and research. It can be an ‘Aha!’ moment for kids.”

The CPS Miles Davis Magnet Academy in Englewood has started utilizing a national curriculum called Engineering is Elementary, one of the best student engineering programs in the country, Pearson said.

Christine Cunningham, director of Engineering is Elementary, developed the curriculum through the Boston Museum of Science.

Massachusetts has high science and technology standards built into their elementary science requirements, yet Cunningham's team found that engineering was not being incorporated into the curriculum.

Most teachers don't have a science background and displayed “sheer fear and panic” at the idea of developing engineering lesson plans, she said. In turn, her team developed a curriculum with an introductory unit that utilized storybooks to illustrate the fundamentals of mechanical and environmental engineering, among other specialties.

“We knew that teachers would be very frightened of the word ‘engineering,’” Cunningham said. “But they are not frightened of literacy.”

Like Pearson, Cunningham said that students studying science concurrently with engineering often learned science concepts better than students who focused on science alone.

Cunningham said attendance improved in Boston schools with engineering added to the schedule. The curriculum is primarily directed to help schools with students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“We started with really difficult districts,” Cunningham said. “If you can make it work there, you can make it work everywhere.”

Yet a challenge for Chicago Public Schools seems to be keeping basic math and science courses consistent. Lach said it’s difficult trying to incorporate new courses when the core subjects are still lacking in what he calls “breadth and fidelity.”

Pearson said the National Academy of Engineering is constantly thinking of ways to talk about engineering to the public in effective ways, using focus groups and online surveys to raise awareness and promote more educational opportunities.

“We call it ‘changing the conversation,’” he said. “It’s a big challenge, [but] an interesting area of education.”