Engineering Lands $2.7 M to Support Innovative Educational Program

A faculty team that includes Douglas Cooper (PI), professor of Chemical, Materials & Biomolecular Engineering — and co-PIs Kazem Kazerounian, professor of Mechanical Engineering and Associate Dean for Research & Strategic Initiatives, Mun Y. Choi, Dean of Engineering and professor of Mechanical Engineering, and Ruth Washington, associate professor-in-residence of Molecular & Cell Biology — has garnered a $2.7 million competitive grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a novel program that will enfold UConn graduate and undergraduate students, and technical high school students and their teachers in cross-cutting sustainable engineering research.

photoThe award was announced in March 2010 and is among the largest NSF grants awarded to the School of Engineering. The funding, made under NSF’s GK-12 program, focuses on providing graduate students unique learning opportunities that will broadly prepare them for professional and scientific careers in the 21st century. The program supports projects in which graduate students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines engage with teachers and students in a K-12 setting to engender greater interest in, and preparedness for, STEM careers. The team brings a wealth of experience to the GK-12 project. Dr. Cooper is a University Teaching Fellow (’03) and Carnegie Foundation Connecticut Professor of the Year (’04) as well as a successful entrepreneur. Dean Choi and Dr. Kazerounian both garnered substantial NSF support, as co-PI and PI, respectively, on previous GK-12 projects. Dr. Washington has established programs aimed at recruiting women and underrepresented minority students to UConn and preparing them for a graduate studies in STEM fields.

The UConn team plans to recruit and train 10 graduate students each year during the five-year grant and to maintain or expand the program in ensuing years. In addition to pursuing the typical duties of graduate students, notably engaging in thesis-based original research projects, these graduate students will interact with secondary-school teachers and students to infuse the curriculum with engineering concepts and ingenuity-stimulating exercises. Graduate students recruited for the project will carry out research in sustainable engineering areas that may include, for example, fuel cells and other carbon-neutral energy technologies, water purification and environmental biotechnology.

The focus on students enrolled in Connecticut’s system of technical high schools, rather than traditional high schools, reflects the team’s thesis that this particular population represents a generally untapped resource for four-year colleges and universities. Dr. Cooper contends that vocation-oriented young people may — through their exposure to cutting-edge research projects and enthusiastic graduate students — be inspired to pursue a four-year college degree. “These students have a documented acumen in visual, mental and tactile subjects associated with technology, and an affinity for a technology centered career. We hope to demonstrate that these students can become a valued talent-pool for college engineering programs.” Among the tech schools signing on to the project are Norwich, Howell Cheney, Albert I. Prince, H.H. Ellis and Windham Tech.

The project will provide doctoral students with new opportunities and perspectives on innovative research in sustainable engineering while expanding their collaborative, leadership, teaching and communication skills. The graduate students will be embedded in participating tech school science, math or technical classrooms, where they will work with the teachers to develop and integrate fundamental engineering lessons into the coursework and to introduce supplementary activities that foster team-based “creative innovation” in problem solving. Undergraduate engineering students will also be recruited to participate as mentors and role models helping to nurture the tech school students’ creativity, knowledge acquisition, leadership and communication skills.

Yet another layer involves the tech school teachers, who will be encouraged to participate in a teacher enrichment program offered by the School of Engineering, through which teachers are embedded in engineering research labs for periods of one to five summer weeks.

The GK-12 team’s first priority is to begin recruiting graduate students and arrange meetings with the tech school partners.

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