Outreach Activities Enhance Engineering Awareness

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 or poorly conveyed as a discipline capitalizing on core mathematical, scientific and physics concepts. The challenge is often aggravated by a complex interplay of cultural preconceptions, gender biases and growing international pressures. 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

The programs are administered by Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Education Marty Wood and Engineering Diversity Program Director Kevin McLaughlin, with the support of dedicated staff members Kimberly Duby, Sharon McDermott, and Brian Schwarz and the commitment of numerous undergraduate and graduate engineering volunteers.

GRAPHICAmong the School of Engineering’s varied outreach offerings — all made possible thanks to the generosity of industrial and alumni donors, who help offset the cost of these programs — are the following:

The da Vinci Project, a one-week residential program for middle and high school mathematics, science and technology teachers, was attended by five teachers, who earned continuing education credits while gaining valuable insight into engineering fundamentals. In addition to 18 hours of coursework on fundamental engineering subjects, the teachers participated in a fuel cell workshop taught by Dr. Alevtina Smirnova of the Center for Clean Energy Engineering in which they built and tested their own fuel cell from scratch while gaining in-depth understanding of the sciences behind fuel cell design. They also participated in special seminars, tours and demonstrations designed to broaden their’ understanding of how deeply engineering improves everyday life. The teachers also developed modules for integration into their classroom curricula.

The one-week Explore Engineering (E2) residential program-which introduces participating high school juniors and seniors to engineering disciplines via a variety of hands-on experiments and allows them to focus in a particular engineering discipline–remained popular, with 94 students attending from six states. Students are nominated by their high school math and science teachers. 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.

Perhaps the most intensive and highly successful facet of the outreach/diversity array is the BRIDGE program, offered by the Engineering Diversity Program. This five-week residential summer program is reserved for newly admitted freshman engineering students from populations traditionally underrepresented in the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines: females, African Americans, Hispanics, Puerto Ricans and Native Americans. The summer 2008 program had an extremely large pool of more than 50 students. The immersion-style program “primes” students for the engineering experience through coursework in calculus, chemistry, physics and programming, and includes study sessions, group problem solving activities, social/recreational activities and on-site industry visits. Those who successfully complete the BRIDGE program are eligible for scholarship awards of up to $3,000 per year, provided they remain full-time students and maintain their grades. The program is highly regarded and has contributed toward a high retention rate among its participants.

The day-long Multiply Your Options (MYO) Conference, now in its 15th year, brought more than 185 female eighth graders from 18 Connecticut middle schools to campus for 24 different workshops/panel discussions. Workshops covered diverse subjects such as the relationship between electricity and magnetism, aerodynamics and Newton’s Laws of Motion, proper cleaning and maintenance of computers, and light and optics. UConn engineering students and engineering and science alumni now working in industry presented the workshops.

Each fall and spring, the School hosts the Pre-Engineering Program (PEP) for underrepresented students in grades 7-9, targeting 50-60 students in primarily urban school districts. During the 2008-09 school year, PEP relied upon 15 undergraduate engineering student mentors who guided the participating students with their hands-on projects each week and acted as mentors, role models and confidants.

The link between skillful chess play and proficiency in engineering and math is generally acknowledged within the educational community. In response to this association, several years ago the School of Engineering began to sponsor and host a variety of chess tournaments for students in grades 5-12, and to offer scholarships incentives for top competitors who elect to study engineering at UConn. UConn hosted tournament play, and the State Chess Championship, this year, attracting more than 100 young competitors.

For the fourth consecutive year the School of Engineering organized, sponsored and hosted the Northeast Science Bowl (NESB) for high school students in which teams competed against each other in round-robin style on a range of difficult math and science questions. The competition drew 36 science bowl teams and 13 fuel cell teams from across Connecticut as well as New York, Rhode Island and New Hampshire.

The May 2, 2009 Connecticut Invention Convention at Gampel Pavilion attracted more than 500 students in grades K-8. This year marked the 11th consecutive year the School of Engineering has hosted and sponsored the event. U.S. Congressman Joe Courtney (District 2) delivered opening remarks before the audience of more than 2,000 student inventors, parents, judges, teachers and volunteers. Exhibits and hands-on activities offered by different engineering programs at UConn enriched the experience for attendees of the day-long event.

The School also hosts visiting groups of school children throughout the year, many on campus to explore energy technologies. This year, the School once again hosted a group from the extracurricular “Connecticut Kids Fueling the Future” enrichment program, which included 26 students in grades 7-8 who spent part of their spring break learning about alternative energy. This year’s coordinator, Kristen Naiden, said the children hailed from Carrigan Middle School in West Haven and East Shore Middle School in Milford. Following an overview on hydrogen, biofuels and fuel cells, the students visited various energy “centers” where they explored a range of subjects more closely, including biodiesel, a microbial fuel cell and anaerobic hydrogen production demonstration, solar energy and basic fuel cell technologies.

For more information about the School of Engineering’s outreach programs, or contributing toward any of these programs, please contact Marty Wood at marty@engr.uconn.edu or by phone at (860) 486-2167.

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