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E-news Online May 2012

SEAS Reaches Out to Teachers and Students to Develop the Engineer of the Future

By Josie Pipkin

There is a critical need for engineers in Virginia and in the nation. President Obama has called for as many as 10,000 new American engineers a year. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, in the Virginia Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2011, declared increased access to higher education and emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math — the so-called “STEM” fields — essential to preparing Virginia residents for jobs of the future. Technology is interwoven into every aspect of modern life, and there is a pressing need for individuals who not only understand technology but also have the ability to communicate, lead and apply their skills for the betterment of society.

To address this need, the U.Va. School of Engineering and Applied Science has a long tradition of outreach to students in the K–12 systems and to their teachers.

“The mission of the Engineering School is, through the creation and transfer of knowledge, to educate leaders in the application and development of engineering and scientific solutions that benefit the world,” says James H. Aylor, dean of the School. “We know that to do this successfully, we must to reach out to students in their early years and work cooperatively with their teachers so that they are well-prepared to succeed in their studies and careers. That we do this successfully is essential to the state, the nation and the world.”

Programs and initiatives sponsored by the Engineering School include classroom tools, teacher training, online materials, camps and open houses.

The Engineering Teaching Kits initiative is a prime example of a successful effort to introduce middle school students to engineering design approaches to problem solving. Founded in 2002 by Associate Professor Larry Richards through the Virginia Middle School Engineering Education Initiative, the program provides customized lesson plans for middle and high school students designed by U.Va. undergraduate students. With support from the Payne Family Foundation and the National Science Foundation, over 50 kits have been developed on a wide range of topics.

Online materials such as the U.Va. Virtual Lab and WISEngineering: A Web-Based Engineering Design Learning Environment bring engineering design principles directly to classrooms and to students’ laptops.

The National Science Foundation-funded U.Va. Virtual Lab uses 3-D animation in multi-scene presentations covering a wide range of topics. Directed by Professor John Bean, the site has more than 7.5 million webpage and podcast views from more than 2,000 identified universities and colleges and more than 1,000 K–12 schools.

WISEngineering is a free, online technology-based curriculum delivery, assessment and feedback system that guides precollege students through engineering design projects. Led by Professor Jenny Chiu of the Curry School of Education, it is being developed by a partnership of engineers, educational researcher and teachers at U.Va., Hofstra University and the City University of New York. With the support of the Next Generation Learning Challenges, the WISEngineering is piloting units in middle school math classes.

“To meet the engineering workforce needs of our country, it is essential that we help young people understand the opportunities of the engineering field,” says James Groves, assistant dean for research and outreach and director of SEAS distributed education programs. “While interest and ability in math and science are important to success in engineering, there is much more about the engineering design process that will appeal to students with varied interests and backgrounds. Our challenge is to reach students before they get to high school, help them understand the many aspects of engineering, and keep them on a track toward studies and jobs in science, technology, engineering and math.”

The Engineering School offers a number of opportunities for students to come to Grounds to participate in activities designed specifically for them. The annual Engineering Open House, offered each March, brings in more than 1,000 students and family members to view exhibits, listen to presentations and talk with students and faculty. The FIRST Robotics Shenandoah Valley Regional Qualifier, which the Engineering School co-hosts each winter, brings together middle and high school robotics teams from around Virginia to compete for a chance to go on to the state-level competition. There are also smaller competitions, including the Association for Computing Machinery annual high school programming contest, which brings teams of students together to compete in solving a variety of problems. This year, 18 teams participated.

Programs designed for females and other populations underrepresented in engineering are organized by both the Engineering School and student groups such as the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) and the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE).

“We work to increase the recruitment and retention of all students and those who are underrepresented in engineering and applied science by their direct participation in engineering design projects from an early age through programs that target all students,” says Carolyn Vallas, assistant dean and director of the U.Va. Center for Diversity in Engineering. “And when they arrive on Grounds, we provide many support services, participation in student organizations and other activities as well as summer opportunities for teachers.”

The ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp, schedule for June 17th through June 29th this year, will bring more than 50 students together to participate in hands-on design projects, go on field trips and enjoy interaction with engineering students and faculty. This year’s theme is “iCreate — STEM Design for a Sustainable Future.”  The camp is sponsored by The Harris Foundation Inc. and the ExxonMobil Foundation and hosted by the Center for Diversity in Engineering. Activities include interaction with veteran astronaut Bernard Harris, Jr., the first African-American to walk in space.

Engineering faculty have developed materials and organized workshops to directly assist teachers in understanding engineering pedagogy and assessment. Initiatives include the Innovation Portal, through which students can submit e-portfolios of their engineering design work, which can then be evaluated by their teachers. Partners in this endeavor include the University of Maryland, Vanderbilt University, the U.S. Naval Academy, Tennessee Tech, FIRST Robotics and SeaPerch. Other recent activities include a Rolls-Royce-sponsored workshop for teachers in the Hopewell area to introduce them to Engineering Teaching Kits.

Teacher outreach efforts also include participation at the national and international level with K–12 programs through the American Society for Engineering Education, which has led to hands-on sessions for teachers in multiple cities, plenary panels and focus groups for teachers and administrators.

For further information on the Engineering School’s K–12 initiatives, visit