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by Lindsey Wagner, Cavalier Daily Associate Editor
While the University’s School of Engineer-ing and Applied Sciences is easily filling its classes, less and less students nationwide are interested in pursuing engineering, according to Mechanical Engineering Prof. Larry Richards.
In order to combat the problem, the Engineering School has developed a number of outreach programs to stir an engineering interest in middle and high school students in Virginia.
Girls Excited about Math and Science is a student organization that travels to nearby middle schools to get girls involved in science and, quite simply, to have fun.
GEMS visits each Charlottesville-area middle school once per semester and helps the young women complete an enjoyable math or science activity. Previous experiments include making Gak, having egg-drop competitions and completing logic problems.
Third-year Engineering student and Co-President Kara Worrest said GEMS members spend most of their time with sixth-grade girls because their schedule matches the best with University volunteers.
“We focus on middle school because it’s proven that middle school is when girls start falling behind guys in the fields of math and science,” Worrest said.
Although the club only works with female students, second-year Engineering student and co-president Emily Hebeler said the experiments are not gender-specific.
“We do something that’s fun, that boys would also enjoy,” Hebeler said.
Ultimately, both Worrest and Hebeler said GEMS hopes to sustain girls’ interest in math and science as they get older.
“We want to get more girls to continue with math in high school and in their college years, along with engineering,” Hebeler said.
Worrest said the girls’ reactions after the activities are the most rewarding moments of the program.
“They say, ‘I thought math and science was a lot different,’ and some say ‘I want to be an engineer when I grow up,’” Worrest said. “As to how true that is, I’d like to think it will be.”
Explorations in Engineering
Professors Dana Elzey and James Groves are co-teaching a semester-long course designed for high school students in the Blue Ridge Virtual Governor’s School called “Explorations in Engineering.” The course, a collaboration of the Engineering School and the School of Continuing and Professional Studies, is taught with distance learning methods and aims to differentiate engineering from other sciences.
Last semester, Elzey said he used videoconference technology but it was too unreliable. This semester the class uses Horizon Wimba, what he described as an “Internet-based audio visual project.”
During the class, Elzey and Groves sit at their own computers with a headset and a microphone. From a University location, the two professors can present PowerPoint slides as well as other software programs to students on computers at their respective high schools. The professors can lecture through the microphones as well as ask and answer questions, break the students off into groups and communicate solely with one student at a time in their virtual classroom.
“We want to expose students to engineering,” Groves said. “Engineering is not on the standard high school curriculum. This exposure to engineering helps students know something about the field so they can make an educated guess” about a possible career.
Elzey also said the misperception of engineering students needing to be at the top of their class in math and science was a reason for creating the class.
“It’s more than” math and science, Elzey said. “It’s creative thinking, working in teams, having something in mind to change. We need more well-rounded engineers.”
The course culminates in an engineering project. This semester, Elzey said the project deals with solving issues related to senior citizens, such as memory loss, physical exercise and social isolation.
Groves said he and Elzey are optimistic they will expand the program to encompass southwestern Virginia next semester.
“It seems to me like a mission accomplished,” Elzey said.
Engineering Teaching Kits
The purpose of Prof. Larry Richards’ fourth-year mechanical engineering class is for each group of five or six students to develop an engineering design project and a lesson plan suitable for a middle school class—a “teaching kit.”
“The key is that the [University] students must design each teaching kit using everyday materials that are affordable for middle schools,” Richards said.
Richards’s teaching kits focus on the design element of engineering rather than equations. The teaching kits that are currently being created include designing hovercrafts, creating water filtration systems and studying the engineering of roller coasters.
“I knew science kits were out there, but what they seemed to be missing was showing engineering as something other than science and math,” Richards said.
Fourth-year Engineering student Meg Olson is working on a water filtration teaching kit.
“Basically we’ll go through the use of water as a resource and how engineers do what engineers do and the decisions they make based on what they have,” Olson said. “Then we’ll go through how water is cleaned in different parts of the world, and the final project is given a set bunch of objects, the kids have to put a filter together.”
Despite the element of fun for the students in the teaching kits, Richards said they serve a practical purpose as well.
“When these kits were used in a summer enrichment program, there was a significant improvement in topics related to the Virginia Standards of Learning after the teaching kits were used,” Richards said. “These things do make a difference.”
Center for Diversity in Engineering
The Center for Diversity in Engineering directs five different programs in order to attract a diverse group of students to the Engineering School.
The biggest project is the week-long summer program for high school students called Intro to Engineering.
“ITE is good because it provides the opportunity to have a diverse population of students who are academically on the same level,” CDE director Carolyn Vallas said.
Another program, Juntos Podemos, reaches out to Hispanic high school students across Northern Virginia.
University students travel to high schools with large Hispanic populations to educate them about the importance of staying in school and the possibility of a career in engineering. The Hispanic students can also choose to apply to spend the night at the University during the Engineering Open House.
“We choose the Engineering Open House because the labs are open, and the faculty is here,” Vallas said. “The focus is to expose them to everything engineering that we can.”
CDE offers an outreach program at Charlottesville High School for physics tutoring as well.
Another large outreach program CDE sponsors is the Society of Women Engineers’ Visitation Weekend. This event, like Juntos Podemos, involves female high school students spending the night at the University during the Engineering Open House.
“The Visitation Weekend is a wonderful opportunity to really excite women about engineering,” Vallas said.
First-year Engineering student Jessica Bashkoff attended the program when she was in high school and hosted students for SWE’s program this year.
“It’s interesting to see how you were when you were them,” Bashkoff said. “It was a good way to first see the University.”
First-year Engineering student Christina Stamper also hosted prospective engineers.
“The purpose is to get women to go into engineering in general, not just at U.Va.”