Wednesday, July 17, 2019

High school students in Iowa and across the country this school year will build pinhole cameras and design earthquake-resistant buildings as part of an innovative curriculum that engages students in hands-on engineering experiences and builds creative problem-solving skills.

Iowa school districts implementing Engineer Your World in 2019–20

  • Danville Community School District
  • Rock Valley Community School District
  • Tripoli Community School District

But first, their teachers had to tackle the same projects during two weeks of training at the Seamans Center for the Engineering Arts and Sciences on the University of Iowa campus.

The UI has partnered with Engineer Your World at the University of Texas at Austin to provide two-week professional development institutes in which educators engage in engineering practices, experience the curriculum they will teach, and discover the most effective strategies for project-based instruction.

Engineer Your World was developed in 2008 by University of Texas faculty, NASA engineers, and secondary teachers working with funding from the National Science Foundation.

David Rethwisch, professor of chemical and biochemical engineering and faculty director of Iowa Engineer Your World, says one of the things that makes the program so attractive is that it exposes students to the ways engineers improve people’s lives.

For example, students are asked to build a pinhole camera that can be operated by a person with a physical disability.

“They go through the whole design process, but they’re always taking into account how it impacts the user,” Rethwisch says. “Another project asks them to create an aerial imaging system to capture images of a natural disaster zone, such as in Iowa when there is flooding. Each project ties back to how it impacts people.”

Rethwisch says this emphasis attracts a more diverse student population.

“That was, to us, the key thing,” Rethwisch says. “At most engineering colleges, for example, you’re talking at best 20% young women. If you look at Engineer Your World participation, it’s about 35% young women. It takes people who weren’t already thinking about being an engineer and makes them consider the possibility.”

Schools in 28 states have implemented Engineer Your World curriculum, and, until this year, sent teachers to Texas for training. Iowa is the first university to partner with the program and offer training outside of Texas. Rethwisch says his team worked with UT-Austin to make sure the curriculum was accessible to small school districts.

“Big school districts have more degrees of freedom,” Rethwisch says. “They have more scheduling capability and more teachers available. We wanted to make sure it worked for a small school’s schedule, where they only have a few electives. That’s an audience that has been underserved in the past. This is also a relatively inexpensive curriculum, so it’s easier to implement.”

This year, Engineer Your World was recognized as one of 10 high quality educational offerings in the STEM Scale-Up Program launched by the Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council. Iowa schools can apply for a STEM Scale-Up Award to cover most startup costs for Engineer Your World.

In its inaugural training this summer, three schools from Iowa and five from outside the state took part.

Is your school interested in implementing Engineer Your World?

Learn more.

Rethwisch says because the deadline to apply for the award coincided with when schools were finalizing their curriculum for the following school year, they didn’t expect a lot of Iowa schools to join the first year.

“It’s our pilot year,” Rethwisch says. “These first Iowa schools may host other schools that are thinking about the program in the future.”

Paula Carlson teaches science courses for students in eighth through 12th grade—including chemistry, physics, and environmental science—in the Tripoli Community School District. She says she and her colleagues have been exploring potential STEM curriculums. About 20 students are expected to take the class this upcoming school year, and she says several have expressed excitement or ask questions about it.

“I’m really hoping that students are able to understand, No. 1, what an engineer does for a living,” Carlson says. “I think a lot of people have an idea of what an engineer does and it’s not really what they do. I’m also hoping to have some students say, ‘I really like this, I’m really good at this, and I’m going to pursue this in college.’ And we’ll probably have some students who think they want to be engineers who afterward say, ‘I don’t know, maybe I’m not so sure.’ And that’s OK too.”

While geared toward students who want to explore engineering as a career, the class teaches skills that go far beyond the field.

“It teaches problem-solving and communication skills,” says Chelle Lehman, director of K–12 school engagement at the College of Engineering. “Students learn to collaborate and work in a team. It improves technology literacy. So, if during this process they say, ‘Gosh, engineering isn’t really for me,’ it doesn’t matter what area they go into. They are bringing very transferrable skills with them.”

Lehman says it also teaches students that failure isn’t always bad.

“They become more courageous because they’re inspired to try new things and not be afraid to fail,” Lehman says. “Failing is part of the process, and they learn to embrace failure.”

Students who take the course also can apply to receive college credit through UT-Austin.

educators in engineering class
High school STEM teachers tackle engineering projects during training at the Seamans Center for the Engineering Arts and Sciences on the University of Iowa campus. Photo by Helaina Thompson.

Carlson says she is excited to experience project-based learning with her students.

“I’m also hoping that by doing it in this class, it will help me see and understand ways to incorporate it into my other classes as well,” Carlson says.

Carlson says she feels confident that the training she’s getting on the UI campus will prepare her to teach the curriculum to her students.

“I don’t have a background in engineering, but they are walking us through the engineering design process so that when we return to our schools, we can have our students model the design process that actual engineers are using.”

Educators involved with Engineer Your World will receive ongoing assistance beyond the two-week summer training, including access to engineers and instructional support specialists and online communication tools to facilitate peer-to-peer interaction and sharing of best practices.

Rethwisch says when evaluating programs to partner with, they looked for one that wasn’t static and would evolve over time. While the Iowa training is only for the first Engineer Your World course this year, schools also have access to a second course, and a third is in the works.

“This curriculum is well-refined,” Rethwisch says. “Texas has a mechanism in place to sustain the program, and that’s what makes it worthwhile. It’s not just a one-off and then it dies. There’s continuous development, continuous improvement. This is a curriculum with legs.”