CU Professor Janet deGrazia Aims To Boost Interest In Engineering Through Series

Published: Oct. 10, 2001


Chemical engineering Professor Janet deGrazia spends summers at CU-Boulder wowing schoolkids and teachers by launching pencil rockets, dissecting rock-climbing cams and showing why bridges collapse to demonstrate Newton's Laws of Motion and other scientific principles.

Those topics and others will be featured in a weeklong educational show, "The ABCs of Engineering," to be aired Oct. 22-26 on NEWS4. The two-minute segments will be a regular part of NEWS4 at 4 p.m., featuring anchor-weatherman Larry Green and deGrazia explaining scientific concepts in fun and visual ways to third- through fifth-graders.

For CU-Boulder the television series provides a way to bring its educational outreach programs to a larger audience. For deGrazia it's an opportunity to get young schoolchildren interested in math and science by sparking their interest through the visual medium of television.

"The vision I have is that some of the kids will be watching these shows and say 'Oh cool! That's what I want to be,' " said deGrazia. "We want them to get excited about learning science or math or engineering."

During the academic year, deGrazia teaches thermodynamics, fluids, heat transfer and chemistry to undergraduate engineering majors. But unlike many professors who spend much of their non-teaching time on research, deGrazia's other main focus is on outreach programs for schoolchildren and K-12 teachers.

"When I began teaching college engineering, I realized many of our students were not exposed to engineering in the public schools," she said. Her interest in helping improve K-12 science curriculum led to her later appointment as director of outreach for CU-Boulder's Integrated Teaching and Learning Laboratory.

Throughout the summer at ITLL, deGrazia and her staff host a series of programs through which elementary students and teachers get to test out scientific concepts. They learn how the concepts are used by engineers in their jobs -- testing sporting goods equipment, designing cars or improving biomedical devices, such as braces for leg injuries.

"The thing that makes our programs work so well for the kids and the teachers is that all the programs incorporate a hands-on and design-build format," said deGrazia. "They're all using laptops, 3-D computer programs and experiential modules -- tools that are hard for individual schools to afford.

"The kids and the teachers love having the faculty here to interact with, and they leave us saying, 'Hey, I could go to school here. I can do this.' "

"The ABCs of Engineering," aims to create the same excitement about engineering as CU's outreach programs do every summer when kids and teachers come to CU from Grand Junction, Montrose, Sterling and other cities, deGrazia said.

"The students who participate in 'The ABCs of Engineering' in school can all design their own pencil rockets," deGrazia said. "They learn about thrust and drag and aerodynamics, and find out that engineering can be a lot of fun."

DeGrazia, who put herself through college by earning money on TV game shows, knows how to keep the classroom experience from getting dull. In all of her courses she incorporates a game show theme in one class each semester as a break from the "chalk and talk" routine.

"I try to take material that seems unapproachable and make it accessible and fun," she said.

Because fewer American students have been studying engineering since the early 1980s, programs like CU's Success Institute aim to attract more female students and more underrepresented minority students to the field. Along with foreign students, the groups are making up a larger proportion of engineering programs nationally.

Of about 62,500 engineering bachelor degree students graduating in the 1980s, about 19 percent are women and 12 percent minorities, deGrazia said.

Career opportunities in engineering are wide-ranging and ever expanding, according to deGrazia.

For example, many of CU's chemical engineering graduates get offers to work in the wine industry, a field not typically associated with engineers. And in the growing field of nanotechnology, the development of microscopic devices, new CU programs are preparing students to be at the cutting edge of that industry.

"There is a great need for engineers in our society and in the modern world," deGrazia said. "And for any student who likes math or the sciences, this field is the one that makes the best practical use of both of those skills."

For more information on "The ABCs of Engineering" go to or