The middle school teachers in Mobile, Alabama, were nervous. The lesson plan called for students to work in teams to design and build "biodomes" to support life on the moon. The students were to plant vegetable seeds and collect data over a few-week period to measure their success. With 32 students per class, each room would swell with as many as eight biodomes, requiring that the habitats be stored and data collected by students out in the hallway.
"The teachers thought the students might not come back—but they did," recalls Susan Pruet, director of Engaging Youth in Engineering, an initiative aimed at preparing Mobile's graduates for changing workforce needs.
"We started using TeachEngineering in the fall of 2007," says Pruet, who holds a doctorate in math education. "The first teachers were the guinea pigs, but we have seen the students totally get engaged. Now our teachers are enthused because they see their students are enthused."
TeachEngineering (teachengineering.org) is a digital collection of classroom-tested K–12 engineering lessons and activities—including a design project on biodomes—that were created by 18 engineering colleges, primarily through grants from the National Science Foundation.
Jacquelyn Sullivan, associate dean of engineering at CU-Boulder, led the development of TeachEngineering, collaborating on the project with colleagues at Duke University, Oregon State University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and the Colorado School of Mines.
The collection brings together engineering content created by the different colleges using a common "look and feel" and a system architecture developed by René Reitsma at Oregon State University's College of Business that allows teachers to search the material by subject matter, grade level, and educational content standard.
Pruet praises the TeachEngineering collection not only for the "wealth of curriculum materials, but the way they are organized. I could quickly look for ideas, and it helped me to look at the components and guidelines for writers because we were getting ready to start on this same path [of writing engineering curriculum]."
Deena Logan, a middle school specialist and magnet school coordinator at Grantham Academy in Houston, Texas, also is an enthusiastic user. "The lessons are so well written and match many of our benchmark targets in our district and our standards for math and science in Texas," she says.
Grantham's math and science teachers have been using the collection for at least two years, and have been able to lead activities on the building of bionic arms and making robots out of discarded appliances.
"The TeachEngineering curriculum helps our students with their critical thinking and problem-solving skills," Logan says. "It also provides students with an avenue to go a different direction with their knowledge. They actually apply what they've learned to the world and create something new."
Nearly a decade of work has gone into creating the TeachEngineering digital library, which now includes more than 900 hands-on engineering lessons and activities, most of them aggregated into 54 curricular units, which are fully aligned to all state and national standards for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
Sullivan's team at CU-Boulder, which includes dozens of graduate engineering students who have taught in local schools over the years, as well as professional staff and engineering undergraduates, has generated about two-thirds of the collection's content to date. CU-Boulder and Duke serve as the primary publishers of new materials, which are increasingly being created by other engineering colleges.
The TeachEngineering collection was recognized for excellence at the National Science Digital Library's 2010 annual meeting in Washington, D.C. Meeting chair Susan Jesuroga singled out TeachEngineering as the most "learning application-ready" collection in NSDL, a recognition based on quality criteria defined by NSDL as part of an assessment of the extent to which their 121 collections make their content accessible to teachers.
Sullivan calls it a "labor of love" for the team members at each participating college: "This was started through a grass-roots effort of engineering faculty. We were spending too much time reinventing the wheel and we wanted to do something that would move engineering in the K–12 setting farther along. Fortunately, the National Science Foundation saw value in our proposition and has been a funding partner for several years."
Launched in 2005, the TeachEngineering collection is now being used from coast to coast, and even internationally, to improve K–12 STEM education. In one month last fall, 85,000 unique visitors accessed the collection from the United States to Australia, and Jamaica to Pakistan.
While learning through engineering in K–12 classrooms is still in its infancy, business and educational leaders are honing in on engineering education as a way to bring relevancy to math and science, and to integrate STEM disciplines through engineering design.
"TeachEngineering has helped us in our STEM transformation to an integrated model that uses engineering to connect the silos of math and science for the district," says Pruet, adding that the Mobile County Public Schools recently embraced middle school standards for math and science that involve a design challenge or activity in engineering.
"One hundred years ago the great debate was about whether to study science in K–12 because it diverted time away from the classics," says Sullivan, who served on the National Academy of Engineering's Committee on K–12 Engineering Education and led the formation of the K–12 Division within the American Society for Engineering Education. "The motivator for engineering in K–12 is it contributes to STEM learning through design and innovation. It fits in as the great integrator and brings creativity into the mix."
The TeachEngineering collection focuses primarily on lessons and activities for grades 3–9, although it offers some activities targeted at each grade from K through 12. All of the activities were designed to be done "on a shoestring," Sullivan says, using materials that can usually be purchased at a grocery or hardware store with an average budget of about $8 per class of 25 students.
"We are a nation whose economy is driven by innovation, creating what has never existed before," Sullivan says. "Engineering opens up that world of creativity and design for youngsters—inspiring tomorrow's innovators, while providing context to their science and math learning. Engineering makes the world around us come alive for youth."
Keep up with the latest news about the college by reading the 2013 issue of CUEngineering magazine online.