Engineering Goes to School: the Galileo Project

On June 13, 14 seniors from Somers High School brought three electric cars to Lime Rock Park in Lakeville, CT for an endurance race in which they competed against 15 other vehicles for the top laurels in the Connecticut Electrathon Challenge. Unlike some contenders, the Somers team both designed and built their vehicles, which are batterypowered and-by Electrathon America rules-limited to two batteries from a specific list, with each vehicle carrying a total driver’s weight of 180 lbs. The Electrathon Challenge, executed on a closed 1/4 mile track, confers top honors to the team whose vehicle travels the greatest distance around the track within one hour’s time. The race features three competitive classes: novice, composite and classic, and the team registered entries in both the composite and classic divisions, earning second- place laurels in the composite race with their newest entry, which completed 112 laps and also won “best in show” plaudits.

The opportunity to compete in the Connecticut Electrathon Challenge is the culminating activity of a two-semester “Research and Development” course at Somers High School. In October 2005, UConn Mechanical Engineering M.S. graduate student Peter Bohnenkamp was embedded in the class as a so-called “Galileo Fellow” introducing engineering concepts into the curriculum. It’s part of an innovative School of Engineering outreach program begun in 2002 with $1.5 million in support from the National Science Foundation. The Galileo Project is a two-pronged program that exposes high school students to engineering fundamentals while introducing engineering graduate students to classroom instruction. Now in its fourth year, the program has garnered a total of $1.8 million in grants and amassed an impressive record of successes. Dr. Kazem Kazerounian, professor of Mechanical Engineering, is principal investigator on the program. His collaborator until spring ’06 was Robert Vieth, former director of the School of Engineering’s da Vinci Project.

As the in-class Galileo Fellow, Mr. Bohnenkamp worked weekly with the instructor, Roy Slater, to teach the students basic engineering principles and techniques, including force, torque, free-body diagramming, stress, strain, material properties, energy and efficiency. After learning the core principles, the class designed their electric car on paper and then discussed the correlation between their design and the engineering concepts they learned in class. Next, the class took their design from mere concept to solidity, using techniques such as welding, casting, and composite layering to construct their vehicle body of primarily carbon fiber, with the rear composed of tubular aluminum and the front fashioned of cast magnesium alloy.

Commenting on the challenge to engage high school students in engineering subjects, Mr. Bohnenkamp said “I learned a lot about how to use hands-on learning to allow engineering concepts to really sink in…I did some classroom-style teaching in October and November, but very few students really took to what I was teaching. But most of them made connections to my classroom lessons as soon as I pointed things out on a physical piece in the shop.”

The Somers High teacher, Mr. Slater, has been pleased with the Galileo Project experience in his classroom, which he said has benefited his students in numerous ways. “It provides our seniors the opportunity to put into practical use all of their experiences within technical education, provides each student the opportunity to experience their field of concentration under real-world conditions, and brings the world of engineering to the students from design through development. It also empowers students to function as a team with a task and deadline procedures, challenges them to select and experience new technologies and processes, brings their academic learning (math, science, etc.) to a level of understanding through application, and – finally – challenges them to become independent lifelong learners. Having Mr. Bohnenkamp in the class room brought a critical and exciting element to the engineering process as students attacked their design with greater insight into the problems that needed to be addressed than previous classes.”

The Galileo Project was conceived as a means to enhance the number of high school students enrolling in engineering programs at UConn. As the U.S. seeks to increase the number of graduating engineers to meet industry demand, educators are looking for ways to entice more pre-college students to pursue an engineering education. The Galileo Project is a collaborative effort of the School of Engineering and the Neag School of Education; seven Connecticut school districts; the Connecticut Academy for Education in Mathematics, Science and Technology; the Greater Hartford Academy for Math and Science; and local industry.

Now in its fourth year, the Galileo Project has trained approximately 10 graduate fellows yearly and involved 1,400 students primarily in grades 9-12. Each Galileo Fellow spends 8-12 hours weekly in the classrooms of participating schools/classes assisting teachers with development of engineering lesson plans and modules that use and teach engineering principles. The participating schools include Bloomfield High, Bolton High, Lyman Memorial High (Lebanon), Manchester High, Montville High, E.O. Smith High in Storrs, Somers High and Stafford Middle School.

The modules cover subjects such as design of a crane, a remote manipulator, or a calculator using (Microsoft) Visual Basic; surveying as a mathematics application; Scrabble® statistics; and an engineer’s view of the solar system. At Stafford Middle School, the Galileo Fellow worked with an eighth grade science teacher to develop and deliver a unit on bridge building that culminated in each student building a model bridge from toothpicks and glue. Two of the participating school districts developed pre-engineering courses, based on modules developed by the Galileo Fellows, which were successfully piloted in spring 2005. The Somers school district also leveraged its participation in the Galileo Project to win an $18,000 grant from the Connecticut DEP to study the Scantic River Watershed.

The program has met with impressive success. “Anecdotally, we are hearing that students exposed to the Galileo Project are gaining an appreciation of the role of engineers in society, a better understanding of how engineers solve problems, and greater interest in engineering as a career,” said Dr. Kazerounian.

The Galileo Project investigators and Fellows also conducted several studies to assess engineering creativity and technical/engineering literacy included in state curriculum standards. The first study concluded that identifying and removing barriers to creativity in engineering curriculum will produce exceptional, rather than merely competent, engineers. The second study concluded that many states include engineering education frameworks in their standards, and employ the term “technology,” but fail to identify the context of engineering concepts as relating to science disciplines. The Galileo Project may just be the elixir necessary to bridge this gap.