By Nick Gagliardi
Engineering students know first-hand that engineering applies scientific concepts as tools in the creation of new and better products and services. Unfortunately, secondary school children are not usually introduced to engineering as a course of study and a path to a rewarding career. Engineering students at UConn now have a new avenue available to them for outreach to the larger K-12 community, thanks to a program sponsored by United Technologies Corporation (UTC) called the UConn Engineering Ambassadors.
A volunteer organization which began at UConn in September 2009, Engineering Ambassadors places UConn’s School of Engineering in an elite four-school association with Penn State, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
Each week, UConn’s Engineering Ambassadors travel to schools throughout Connecticut with the goal of introducing school-age children and teachers to engineering, both as a profession and a way to understand and improve the world around them. In particular, some programs focus on engaging under-served populations who can bring new insights and perspectives to engineering and problem solving. This past fall the group started holding weekly trips to the Woodstock education system, introducing engineering to the K-12 students.
“It’s an excellent opportunity to engage our youth [in engineering], most students truly have a lot of fun with our activities,” said Leah Pruzinsky, a junior in the engineering program at UConn. In the coming years, they plan to expand their visits to include up to 30 schools throughout the state. Although their main goal is to support the creation of engineering clubs at the middle and high school levels, the Engineering Ambassadors do not limit the students to engineering in general. “If our presentation leads students anywhere on the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) path, then our job was a success,” said Engineering Diversity Program Coordinator Sonya Renfro.
UTC Support Sows Opportunity
The Engineering Ambassadors program owes its genesis to UTC, whose $50,000 startup donation supports the group’s activities. UTC has vowed to continue their financial support for the coming years. “UTC has provided us with the catalyst we need to move forward, so that we can truly increase awareness about what engineering is all about,” said Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Education & Diversity Marty Wood.
Beyond school outreach, the Engineering Ambassadors are also working on their own to help promote engineering. During the semester, team members volunteer at the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, with a common goal of informing the public about engineering, often by engaging them in stimulating activities. Through their demonstrations, the Engineering Ambassadors hope to instill simple engineering lessons and plant the seed for future students in the field. “Most people aren’t thinking about engineering, and they don’t understand that almost everything they use on a day to day basis has been created by engineers,” said 6th semester biomedical engineering major Christine Filosa, “And raising that awareness is our overall goal,” she added.
Looking toward the future, the group will continue to track applicants from the targeted schools as a means to set future goals and gauge development. Although still in its first year, the Ambassadors group has over 200 students on the membership list, and continues to grow. “The success of this group has already been astounding, and we hope to continue building upon our accomplishments,” said Mr. Wood. For him and the Engineering Ambassadors, the aims of increasing engineering awareness and growing enrollments should not be a problem. After all, he remarked, “Engineers are problem solvers. That’s what we do.”