Research News

Designs on the Future of High-school Engineering: UTeachEngineering

What started as a teacher training program morphed into a year-long, high school engineering course and multiple professional development opportunities

In May, President Barack Obama kicked off his Middle Class Jobs and Opportunity Tour with a visit to Austin, Texas. First on the agenda--a visit to Manor New Technology High School, a school committed to preparing students for the high-tech, digital world. One of the highlights of the visit was a demonstration by TEXplosion, the school's award-winning robotics team. Although their competition robot was in transit from the world championships, they delivered with their practice bot, "Yolotron."

During the demonstration, President Obama spoke with Bobby Garcia, lead mentor for the robotics team and an engineering teacher at Manor New Tech. Since its start five years ago, the team has gone from a somewhat disorganized after-school program to an integral part of the curriculum. This year for the first time, the team won two regional competitions in Texas and earned a spot at the world robotics championships held in St. Louis, Mo., in April.

Garcia credits the team's turnaround, in part, with his participation in the University of Texas at Austin's (UT Austin) Master of Arts in STEM Education-Engineering (MASEE) program, a 2.5-year mix of residential and online coursework that includes hands-on projects in engineering design methods. The program is part of a larger National Science Foundation- (NSF) funded effort--UTeachEngineering--developed at UT Austin to address both teacher professional development and curriculum creation in engineering at the secondary school level.

Meeting a need

Five years ago, some high schools in Texas began offering a year-long course in engineering to meet a state requirement of a fourth year of science for secondary school students. However, between 1995 and 2010 only 44 Texas high-school teachers became certified in engineering. With the potential for 10,000 to 20,000 students enrolling in engineering each year to satisfy graduation requirements, UT Austin projected that the state could need as many as 500 engineering teachers.

Aware of the great need, UT Austin's David Allen, a chemical engineering professor, teamed with colleague Richard Crawford, a mechanical engineering professor, and Cheryl Farmer, a program manager. Together with colleagues from UT Austin's Colleges of Natural Sciences and Education and the Austin Independent School District, they applied for an NSF grant to fund the creation of a professional development program for teachers of high-school engineering. "We wanted to be engaged in defining what the high-school course would be like and we wanted the teachers to be authentic in providing that course," Allen says.

However, a few months into the grant, input from NSF staff and a request from a school district partner for course materials caused the trio to completely revise their approach. "NSF suggested we develop the requested materials with the ideal high school course in mind," explains Farmer, who now serves as UTeachEngineering project director. "The goal was a year-long, high-quality, low-cost curriculum that could be implemented in a variety of settings."

Creating a course

Rather than create a professional development program, the trio enlisted engineering natural sciences and education faculty, research fellows, practicing engineers--including a NASA engineer--education specialists, and high school teachers, and produced the high-school course, "Engineer Your World." The algebra-based curriculum covers five units--discovering the design process, data acquisition and analysis, reverse engineering of everyday products, systems engineering, and automation and control.

Enriching these five extended design challenges in mechanical, aerospace and civil engineering are week-long explorations that introduce other disciplines such as chemical and biomedical engineering. "In each unit, students build, create, test, refine and analyze," says Farmer. "The course introduces the practice and process of engineering as well as authentic engineering skills and habits of mind." All of these areas are tied to engaging engineering activities and challenges such as building a pinhole camera for disabled artists.

In 2011-12, "Engineer Your World" was piloted in seven schools in Texas. That number jumped to 23 schools in eight states for 2012-2013. The plan is to introduce the course in 100 schools in 2013-2014 and double that number in 2014-2015.

While the course includes many challenging opportunities to learn about how engineers think and what they do, the goal of the course is not to turn every student into an engineer, says Farmer. "We are thrilled if our course helps students make an informed decision about what path they choose to follow. We are helping students be more literate about engineering."

Preparing teachers

Using "Engineer Your World" as a centerpiece, the team returned to their original plan and created several professional development components to complement the course and strengthen the ranks of high-school engineering teachers. UTeachEngineering now includes:

  • the MASEE program aimed at teachers who want to become leaders in secondary engineering education,
  • an undergraduate certificate program for students in engineering and the natural sciences (students simultaneously obtain their bachelor of science degrees and teaching certificates),
  • a certification program for those who hold bachelor's degrees in engineering or science and would like to teach, and
  • a two-week summer session and ongoing support for teachers who teach the "Engineer Your World" course.

Over the next year, UTeachEngineering will add an online learning management system to foster collaboration among current and past participants as well as external resources such as industry mentors.

Rethinking the future

With more students taking high-school level engineering courses than ever before, Allen says programs like UTeachEngineering can help prepare students who may eventually teach those engineering courses, along with mainstream engineers who go on to careers through colleges of engineering. Although the number of students taking engineering in high school are rising, the attrition rate in major engineering undergraduate programs is about 50 percent. "We can lure them in but they don't stay," says Lisa Guerra, the NASA engineer who worked on the systems engineering unit of "Engineer Your World." Allen points out that "it's critical for the engineering profession in the U.S. to utilize what's going on in high schools and to consider how we deal with the transition between high school and college."

For Garcia, his experience with the MASEE program and UTeachEngineering was eye-opening and energizing. Since graduating, he has helped develop two robotics classes for Manor New Tech students and repurposed thousands of dollars worth of equipment and space for the robotics team. "I took the plunge and applied...I was inspired and re-invigorated in teaching engineering. One of the things going right with education is exploring science and math in creative ways."