How do you get more kids excited about engineering? By getting their teachers excited about it.
A new engineering class at the University of Nevada, Reno aims to do just that, exposing area K-12 teachers to engineering design principles and hands-on projects.
A group of about 30 elementary and middle school teachers took the class this spring as part of the University's first master's degree program in education with an emphasis in STEM.
The program, funded by longtime University donor Dorothy Lemelson, provides full tuition for the two-year master's degree. Lemelson has funded master's degree programs for teachers at the University for more than 10 years, with emphases primarily in literacy but also in math and science.
This time, thanks to a new partnership between the College of Education and the College of Engineering, Lemelson cohort teachers will graduate in 2014 with an emphasis in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
The partnership is part of the College of Engineering's broader outreach efforts to introduce Nevada's K-12 students to engineering at a younger age.
"Allowing students to be exposed to engineering increases not only their awareness but their interest," said Meg Fitzgerald, coordinator of recruitment, retention and advising for the College.
While the College's outreach efforts have traditionally focused on students, engineering professors Jeffrey LaCombe and Eric Wang teamed up with education professor David Crowther to develop an engineering course for K-12 teachers.
The course aims to give teachers an engineering perspective on math and science by focusing on the engineering design process and its applications in real-world problem solving.
The class was based on the popular Engineering 100 course taught by LaCombe and Wang. Engineering 100, which is the introductory course for all engineering majors but attracts a significant number of non-engineering majors as well, culminates in a team-designed hovercraft or other engineered product.
"Engineering 100 was absolutely the inspiration," said LaCombe. "But we realized they don't need to become engineers. They need to become fluent in engineering."
The course was divided into thirds, with the first two-thirds focusing on hands-on, engineering design problems, including activities such as Lego robotics and high altitude ballooning.
"We had to program [Legos] to act like a cockroach under certain conditions, so when a light was turned on it would scurry off," said Amanda Todd, a student in the cohort and a kindergarten teacher at Smithridge STEM Academy in Reno.
The final third of the course focused on how to teach engineering, using lessons from the Boston Museum of Science's Engineering is Elementary program.
One goal of the course is to help teachers tap into existing resources for STEM in their classrooms, which can be scarce.
"There's not much out there for teachers to use for covering the ‘E' in STEM," said LaCombe.
Teachers also face challenges finding time in the classroom for STEM demonstrations and providing the material resources students need for hand-on activities.
"We can't have four kids on a [Lego car] kit that's meant for two, because then some are just watching," said Jean Donley, Lemelson student and a third grade teacher at Smithridge. "With the hands-on thing, it's time. Where in the day can you incorporate that?"
Although STEM education has been slow to be incorporated in curricula standards, growing awareness of the need for earlier STEM training is helping pave the way for its implementation in K-12 curricula.
LaCombe and Wang hope their course can someday be part of an undergraduate teacher education program, while Todd and Donley envision that on down the road, teachers will have to take a method course in engineering just like they now do in math and literacy.
In the meantime, thanks to Smithridge's status as a STEM academy, the school is making an effort to infuse STEM projects into the curriculum.
When Smithridge became a STEM academy three years ago, they got funding for a dedicated lab, and students got most of their specialized STEM content outside their primary classrooms. Over the years, they have been incorporating more STEM content in the classroom through project-based learning units.
"When I think of STEM, and I know most of the kids do too, I think of science. Now we're trying to pull in the technology," said Donley.
The Lemelson cohort model emphasizes having multiple teachers from a school move through the program together, and there are four teachers in the program from Smithridge. They hope to take the knowledge they gain back to their colleagues.
"We'll go back to our school and be advocates for this." Todd said, noting that the group has plans to lead professional development activities for other teachers next fall. "We're hoping for a school-wide change."