Outreach Highlights

INNOVATION IN ENGINEERING: GRADES 1-6

In 2007, the National Academy of Science, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine were charged by Congress to form a committee to address the challenges associated with maintaining scientific innovation and economic competitiveness within an increasingly global economy[1]. We focus on addressing two specific recommendations made by this committee. One action item was to strengthen children’s K-12 preparation in science and technology by enhancing the science and engineering education of the science teachers themselves. A second action item was to increase the total number of individuals qualified and motivated to pursue post-graduate study in science and engineering. This proposal will directly address both, through the development and implementation of the elementary school Innovation in Engineering Curriculum (IEC).

While science is taught in elementary schools, principles of engineering and engineering design are almost wholly absent; rather, elementary school curricula focus almost entirely on biological fact-based learning (e.g., ‘life cycle of the frog’-type modules), with little opportunity for updated content drawn from the hard sciences. Most strikingly absent is the opportunity for design, innovation, and problem solving necessary for future professional success in STEM fields.

The IEC includes six year-long Design Challenges; Catapults and Self-Propelled Vehicles (1st grade), Bridges and Tunnels (2nd grade), Circuit Electronics (3rd grade), Computer Programming (4th grade), Robotics (5th grade), and Microcontrollers (6th grade).

The IEC distinguishes itself from existing STEM programs through the integration of three essential components: Content, Innovation, and Problem-Solving.
•Content: STEM outreach primarily aims to spark an interest in future study. By contrast, this curriculum also confers mastery of academic material. For example, the 1st and 2nd grade Design Challenges require an understanding and application of concepts in physics (such as forces, friction, and potential energy), 3rd graders learn to read circuit diagrams, solder, and calculate the effects of amplifiers, resistors, and capacitors; 4th graders learn computer programming syntax and logic, and 5th and 6th graders learn principles of control systems engineering.
•Innovation: Unlike the vast majority of ‘science kits,’ in which children simply follow instructions, our curriculum challenges students to apply the content they have learned to go beyond the manual, in designing something new.
•Problem-Solving: Most educational engineering ‘experiences’ are meant to be completed within one class period. However, in the real world, raw determination and perseverance in the face of adversity play as much a role in success as intellectual know-how. Our Design Challenges are pursued over the course of a full semester, so that students can work on more difficult projects that require iterative problem solving.

This curriculum is being jointly developed by Dr. Mujica-Parodi and twelve BME graduate students, with two assigned to each grade. Ph.D. students meet regularly at the Jewish Academy of Suffolk County, which is serving as an incubator in developing the curriculum, to work directly with training teachers. After three years of iterative improvements and refinements, the team will publish the curriculum for the benefit of other schools.

NSF IEC Ph.D. Students 2014

Daniel DeDora (Team Leader), Vihitaben Patel, Manisha Rao, Pratha Katti, Harrison Seidner, Jessica Schneller, Adrian Howansky, Stephen Lee, April Carniol, Jaslin Kalra

THINKING SYSTEMS: GRADES 7-8

Many of the most interesting features of the world are systems, maintained by negative feedback loops, and the societal implications for breakdown of these systems can be catastrophic. Systems-based phenomena are, for example, as varied as species collapse caused by predator-prey-food imbalance following deforestation, global warming, and the 2008 U.S. housing market collapse. Unfortunately, as the world has become more complex, science and math curricula have failed to capture and teach the dynamics of these phenomena, most likely because their description requires differential equations, and but also because teachers themselves are typically not trained in mathematical modeling. Children have become increasingly accustomed to computer-based learning, and schools are largely recognizing this by integrating computers more and more into the classroom. It follows that teaching students (and teachers) to think in a systems-based way—a way that not only prepares them to approach the direction that science is moving towards (systems biology is currently one of the most rapidly-growing new directions in science) but also teaches them to think more holistically and analytically about the world around them—will be of benefit to both.

STELLA software by isee meets the challenge of teaching young people to “think systems” far before they have the mathematical skills to describe them quantitatively. Specifically designed for K-12, STELLA uses easy-to-manipulate graphics (stocks, flows, connectors, and converters) in order to graphically represent relationships and run simulations.