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  • Outreach Activities Enhance Engineering Awareness

Outreach Activities Enhance Engineering Awareness

In 2000, Asia produced nearly five times more engineering B.S. graduates than did the U.S. Not surprisingly, Asia is also claiming a larger number of U.S. high tech companies as these firms choose to relocate R&D operations to China and India or to outsource non-R&D work to these same countries.

In an August 13, 2005 story appearing in the Houston Chronicle, reporter Kevin Hall states “Pacific Rim nations are graduating great numbers of engineers and threatening to seize the mantle of industrial innovation that was pivotal to making the U.S. economy globally dominant.”

He goes on to say, “This isn’t merely an academic problem. It affects virtually every engineering specialty in society beyond the civil and structural designers who build roads and bridges, including chemical, petroleum, industrial and especially electrical and computer engineering.” The nation’s productivity, infrastructure and economic prosperity are rooted in engineering: without a ready and ample supply of trained engineers, the U.S. risks its role as a global power.

In response to this ongoing trend, UConn’s School of Engineering and other academic engineering programs are taking an increasingly active approach toward recruiting and retaining undergraduate students. Too often, engineering has been entirely absent from the pre-college level curriculum. The problem involves a complex interplay of cultural preconceptions, gender biases and growing international pressures. Thus, the challenge to graduate greater numbers of qualified engineers begins in middle and high schools, where students first begin to ponder their career plans.

Since 1988, the UConn School of Engineering has offered an integrated array of outreach and diversity programs aimed at enhancing engineering awareness among school-age students and their teachers. Among these programs are the annual Engineering 2000, Bridge Program and da Vinci Project, which have been critical in increasing and retaining undergraduate enrollments for the School.

In June 2005, the School held its 10th annual Engineering 2000 workshop, attracting nearly 80 Connecticut high school juniors and seniors from 60 schools, who spent a week exploring the engineering disciplines, assembling rudimentary equipment and exploring engineering as a possible career path. Twenty-four-nearly one-third of the participants-were female. Throughout the one-week residential program, students learned fundamental physics concepts before proceeding to design/construction labs that exposed them to 12 undergraduate majors offered within the School of Engineering’s six departments. The students reviewed general facets of each engineering discipline; received instruction in basic electrical, mechanical, computer and physics concepts; and examined in-depth specific engineering areas chosen by the students, through the Young Engineering Scholars Science Program (YESS). Also included were various hands-on demonstrations and challenges. The students concluded their week with demonstrations of their own working models, including an EKG device, wooden bridges, “smart” Lego robotics vehicles, an electronic dice game and an aluminum casting device. The $400 cost of this residential Engineering 2000 program is refunded to all participants who matriculate to UConn’s School of Engineering.

Marty Wood, Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Education and director of the Engineering 2000 program, commented, “The Engineering 2000 summer program continues to offer students an excellent opportunity to explore various engineering careers and to share this new-found awareness with fellow students.”

Another residential summer program conducted yearly is Bridge, now in its 18th year. Bridge is overseen by Kevin McLaughlin, director of the School’s Engineering Diversity Program. Intended to prepare incoming engineering students for the first-year experience, Bridge 2005 ran for five weeks beginning July 5th. Forty-one students participated in this intensive residential program, which immersed them in the study of mathematics, chemistry, physics and computer programming. The Bridge program is open to qualified students who have been admitted into the UConn School of Engineering for the fall term, and participation is reserved for members of groups traditionally underrepresented among the nation’s engineers, including women, African Americans, Hispanics, Puerto Ricans and Native Americans. The 2005 program attracted students from not only Connecticut but also New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maryland and Puerto Rico.

The program format includes study skills workshops and structured group study sessions, exposure to School of Engineering facilities and labs, field visits to companies and industrial operations, career seminars, and various social, community, recreational and cultural activities. The plant tours help Bridge students gain a better understanding of how engineers apply their academics to the real world. Students meet with peer mentors and role models while exploring the variety of career opportunities within engineering. Those who successfully complete the Bridge program are eligible for scholarship awards of up to $3,000 per year during their undergraduate engineering program.

While Engineering 2000 and Bridge focus on students, the da Vinci Project casts the spotlight on teachers. “Engineering is a discipline that traditionally receives less attention in high school curricula,” said Amir Faghri, Dean of the School of Engineering. “For this reason, we have developed various outreach programs, including the da Vinci Project, geared to introduce engineering to talented high school students. By specifically targeting middle and high school math and science teachers, the da Vinci Project provides an important intellectual portal in the classroom. We continue to be excited by the success, enthusiasm and enormous promise of this unique program.”

The sixth da Vinci Project workshop took place July 18-22, 2005 and attracted 10 participants from Connecticut, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Initially seeded with funding from the National Science Foundation, the residential program brings middle- and high school science and math teachers as well as administrators to campus each year for a series of engineering workshops intended to help them integrate elemental engineering into the classroom so students gain an early exposure to the role of engineering in contemporary life. Participating teachers learn rudimentary engineering concepts and engage in experiments demonstrating specific engineering principles.

The 2005 program entailed 18 hours of coursework and labs in three major workshop areas: Construction and Operation of a Fuel Cell, taught by Dr. Alla Smirnova, during which teachers learned to build their own waterbased hydrogen fuel cell; Bio Materials: Bones, Joints, Tissues, taught by Dr. Theresa Hennessey, during which teachers created their own synthetic bones and tested them to see if they can simulate the properties of actual bone; and Mathematical Optimization and Game Theory, taught by Drs. Peter Luh and Alex Russell, a workshop that allowed participants to investigate several programs in discrete mathematics having discrete and elegant solutions.

Rounding out the 2005 da Vinci Project experience was a series of 10 special seminars, tours and demonstrations designed to broaden the teachers’ understanding of how deeply engineering improves everyday life. The seminars introduced da Vinci teachers to a novel breast cancer detection device that combines ultrasound and infrared light; functioning of the UConn wastewater treatment plant; and fundamentals of a geotechnical lab, cogeneration, and laser and fiber optics communications.