Volume 1, Number 2, Spring 2001


A Contemporary K-12 Science and Engineering Outreach Program

 

Sohail Anwar
Division of Business & Engineering
Penn State Altoona
E-mail: sxa15@psu.edu

 

ABSTRACT  

In the United States there has been a decline in the number of engineering degrees awarded during the past few years. This is in part due to the lack of motivation to pursue engineering careers exhibited by K-12 students. Many universities and colleges are addressing this situation through the development of outreach programs that seek to motivate K-12 students to pursue engineering careers. This paper describes a week-long contemporary science and engineering program for 8th and 9th grade students held every summer at Penn State Altoona since 1997. This project-based integrated educational program is built around an array of contemporary scientific investigations designed to stimulate students' interest in science and engineering at a time when they are just beginning to consider their future choice of career. The principal objective of this program is to create for young minds a vision of science and engineering that is process-oriented, motivational, exploratory, and encourages problem solving. The paper begins with a description of the rationale for this program. The objectives of the program are explained, the activities conducted as a part of this program are described, and instructional tools used in the program are discussed. Finally, the student assessment and program evaluation are described.  

Keywords: K-12 outreach programs, science and engineering, collaborative problem solving, engineering design  

INTRODUCTION  

During the past few years, there has been a decline in the number of engineering degrees awarded by the universities and colleges in the United States1. One of the reasons for this decline in the number of engineering graduates is that fewer K-12 students are interested in pursuing engineering careers. This problem is partially attributed to the lack of appropriate methods and tools which should be used by middle and high schools to motivate students to explore careers in science and engineering. Many colleges and universities in the United States are addressing this problem by developing outreach programs which seek to motivate K-12 students to pursue engineering education.2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 Most of these programs are based on hands-on learning and demonstration activities designed to expose K-12 students to the fundamentals of science and engineering.  

Recognizing the need to motivate K-12 students to pursue careers in engineering, Penn State Altoona, a four-year college in the Pennsylvania State University, initiated a week-long science and engineering summer outreach program in 1997. This program is titled "Regional Summer School of Excellence (RSSE)" and it is designed to allow 8th and 9th grade students to conduct inquiry based exercises built around the contemporary concepts of engineering, optical sciences and biology. The RSSE program serves to stimulate students' interest in science and engineering at a time when they (8th and 9th graders) are just beginning to consider their future choice of career. The learning issues addressed by this program include proficiency in mathematics and sciences; creative thinking; teamwork; communication skills; and information and technology related skills. The objectives for the RSSE program are listed as follows:  

1.      To create a vision of science and engineering that is process-oriented, motivational, exploratory, and encourages problem solving.

2.      To impart students' tools which would be helpful to them in learning more advanced math and science concepts.

3.      To create an environment which allows students to practice soft skills. These skills include interpersonal communication, presentation skills, teamwork, and collaborative problem solving.  

As indicated above, a key objective for this program is the development of soft skills which business and industrial organizations expect engineers and scientists to have in addition to the technical competencies. These skills include teamwork, collaborative problem solving, and interpersonal communication. Working collaboratively in teams, program participants design experiments, manipulate equipment, make measurements, and interpret and present data in an appropriate style. Students practice communication skills by giving team presentations on their work.  

PROGRAM CONTENT AND DELIVERY  

The RSSE program content consists of various concepts from the disciplinary areas of engineering design, electronics, lasers, and biology. The program is focused on the design and implementation of a laser-based biological data measurement and display system to determine the turbidity of water as an estimate of the number of organisms per unit volume. This system integrates the concepts learned by students in the disciplinary areas of engineering design, electronics, lasers, and biology.  

The RSSE program content is organized in the form of three ten-hour instructional units taught by three university faculty members over a period of five days. Table 1 illustrates the program schedule for each of the five days.  

 

Time

Group 1

Group 2

Group 3

8:30 - 10:30 a.m.

Biological Sciences

101 Holtzinger

Lasers and Fiber-Optics

209 Force

Engineering Design 208 Force

10:35 a.m.-12:35 p.m.

Lasers and Fiber-Optics

209 Force

Engineering Design

208 Force

Biological Sciences

101 Holtzinger

12:35 - 1:30 p.m.

Lunch

Lunch

Lunch

1:30 - 3:30 p.m.

Engineering Design

208 force

Biological Sciences

101 Holtzinger

Lasers and Fiber-Optics

209 force

Table 1. Schedule

 

A detailed description of each unit is presented below.  

 

Topical Areas: Engineering Design
Instruction Hours:10 (2 per day)
Learning Issues Addressed:Proficiency in math and sciences; creative thinkinggoal setting; teamwork; communication skills; and information and technology related skills

   

The focus of this component of the program is engineering design which consists of:

        Computer Skills in Design (Computer-Aided Design, Spreadsheets, Word Processing)

        The Internet as a Design Tool

        The Engineering Design Process

- Problem Statement

- Concepts and Ideas

- Background Information

- Analysis

- Selection

- Models and Testing

- Production

        Faulty Designs and What Causes Them: Why the Door Must Read "PUSH"

 

Day 1: The Engineering Design Process The students are given an overview of the process of designing and producing a product, from statement of the problem through production.

 

Day 2: Computer Skills This section involves an introduction to Computer-Aided Design (CAD), Internet familiarization, an introduction to Microsoft Excel and an introduction to Microsoft Word.

 

Day 3: The Internet as a Design Tool Introducing collaborative design by use of Internet Tools and the vast design information resources on the Net is the subject of a hands-on computer session in a Technology Classroom.

 

Day 4: Design and Implementation of a Laser-Based Biological Data Measurement and Display System to Measure Turbidity. Using electronics, optics, and lasers, students design and build a biological data measurement and display system to determine the turbidity of water as an estimate of the number of organisms per unit volume.

 

On Day 4, all the student teams work together for six hours to design and build the biological data measurement and display system under the supervision of all three program faculty members.

 

Day 5: Design in the Real World: "Why Must the Door Read "PUSH"?" A scavenger-hunt for good and bad designs around Altoona campus follows a discussion of problems associated with the design process in real-world execution, including time constraints, fiscal constraints, poor management and poor design team technical execution.

   

Topical Areas: Laser, Optics, and Electronics

Instructional Hours: 10 (2 hours per day)

Learning Issues Addressed: Proficiency in math and sciences; creative thinking; goal

setting; teamwork; technology skills and communication

skills.

 

Day 1: Lasers. Characteristics and Operation.

 

Day 2: Lasers and Optics. Measurements involving lasers and optical devices

 

Day 3: Electronics. Electronic devices and measurements.

 

Day 4: Design and Implementation of a Laser-Based Biological Data Measurement and Display System to Measure Turbidity Using electronics, optics, and lasers, students design and build a biological data measurement and display system to determine the turbidity of water as an estimate of the number of organisms per unit volume.

 

On Day 4, all the student teams work together for six hours to design and build the biological data measurement and display system under the supervision of all three program faculty members.

 

Day 5: Integration of lasers with electronics and fiber optics. Working in teams, students design and build systems which integrate lasers, fiber optics, and electronics. An example of such system is automated laser light show system.

 

The hands-on activities for this component of the 5-day program are as follows:

 

1. Measure the diameter of a laser beam

2. Measure the power of a laser beam.

3. Measure the transmittance of different colored filters using a laser.

4. Measure the transmittance of various banks of different colored filters using a laser.

5. Measure the transmittance of various liquids using a laser.

6. Investigate the effect of passing laser beam through different lenses.

7. Develop an automated laser light show system using lasers, mirrors, and motors.

8. Build opto-electronics circuits using electronic and optical components.

 

 

Topical Area: Biological Sciences

Instructional Hours: 10 (2 hours per day)

Learning Issues Addressed: Proficiency in math and sciences; creative thinking; goal

setting; teamwork and communication skills

 

Day 1: Assessment of the Altoona campus Reflecting Pond. Water samples are collected and analyzed for the presence of microorganisms through the use of light microscopy. Each technique is evaluated to determine the best measure of water quality. Light microscopy is used to identify and quantify the numbers of organisms in a known volume of water.

 

Day 2: How Does Population Biology Influence Pond Eutrophication? Model using nematode life cycle in the laboratory, explores population change over time. Students monitor populations of nematodes in a culture at three temperatures over a two-day period. They graphically represent their data sets to show how populations can change over short periods of time.

 

Day 3: Experimental Design. Working in teams, students design an experiment in the laboratory to address the problem of pond eutrophication. Mechanisms for the restoration of ponds to pristine conditions are examined and discussed in a group format. Once a clean-up design has been chosen the process of implementation is discussed.

 

Day 4: Design and Implementation of a Laser-Based Biological Data Measurement and Display System to Measure Turbidity. Using electronics, optics, and lasers, students design and build a biological data measurement and display system to determine the turbidity of water as an estimate of the number of organisms per unit volume.

 

On Day 4, all the student teams work together for six hours to design and build the biological data measurement and display system under the supervision of all three program faculty members.

 

Day 5: The Next Level: Take Experiments Into the Field. If suitable for outdoor experimentation, the students' proposal developed by them on Day 3 are used in a field situation. The process is started in the time period of this course. However, data to determine the effectiveness of the proposed "clean-up" program is collected over time.

 

The RSSE program is conducted Monday through Friday during the first week of August. In order to allow maximum interaction with program faculty through a low faculty to student ratio, the program participants are divided into three groups with a total of nine students in each group. The student groups are rotated among the three program faculty members.

 

SELECTION OF PROGRAM PARTICIPANTS

 

The target audience for this program consists of over 3000 8th and 9th grade students enrolled in the junior high and middle schools in the regional service area of Penn State Altoona. At the beginning of every year, flyers describing the RSSE program are delivered to the career guidance counselors and the science teachers in the local junior high and middle schools. The science teachers and the career guidance counselors are requested to provide information regarding the RSSE program to the highly motivated 8th and 9th grade science students. The teachers and the counselors encourage these students to apply for participation in the RSSE program. Based on the number of available spaces (27) in the program, students nominated by the school career guidance counselors and the science teachers are selected for participation in the program.

 

STUDENT ASSESSMENT

 

What the students learn in this program consists of two key components. One component is the science and engineering knowledge gained by the program participants. Students learn the principles of lasers, fiber optics, electronics, and the integration of electronics with laser based systems. They also learn how to use the Internet as a design tool and how to carry out a complete engineering design process from beginning to the end. The students also learn contemporary concepts of biological sciences. Finally the student teams design and build a laser-biological data measurement and display system under the supervision of all three program faculty members.

 

The second component of students' learning consists of learning how to work effectively in teams. Throughout this program, the students practice the skills of collaborative problems solving by working on experimental investigations in teams. Each team comprises three program participants. The members of every team are required to choose a team leader at the beginning of the program. The team leader is responsible for coordinating all the team work. A detailed description of the responsibilities of a team leader is presented in9. Working collaboratively in teams, students develop their own experimental procedures to carry out these investigations. They determine what measurements have to be taken and how conclusions are to be drawn.

 

All the work done by the program participants is evaluated right after the completion of each experimental investigation. Instant feedback is provided by the program faculty to students regarding their performance in each experimental investigation. No numerical grading of students' work is done.

 

After learning various concepts of electronics, lasers, engineering design, and biology during the first three days, student teams design and implement the biological data measurement and display system on the fourth day of the program. The project work is carried out by students under the supervision of all three program faculty members. At the end of the day, each student team is required to make a presentation describing the project built by the team. After the team presentation, the program faculty members provide feedback to each student team regarding the project completed by the team. Discussions with student teams focus on the accuracy of the approach used by them to design and build their projects, the effectiveness of their team work, strengths and weaknesses of their performance, and the clarity of their team presentations.

 

PROGRAM EVALUATION

 

The RSSE program has been conducted every year since 1997. It will be held again at Penn State Altoona in August 2000. During the past three years, a total of 81 students participated in the program (27 students every year). Working together in teams, program participants learned how to (i) define a problem; (ii) determine tools and techniques to be used to solve the problem; (iii) take appropriate measurements; and (iv) draw conclusions from the measurements taken. For example, in one of the experimental investigations, students were asked to design and build an automated laser light show system using low power Helium Neon (HeNe) lasers, small motors, and mirrors. With minimal guidance, students were able to cut pieces of mirrors in suitable sizes and to mount them on small motors. Thereafter, each team developed an automated system which made use of lasers and motor controlled mirrors to produce various patterns of laser light.

 

The RSSE program also helped students develop effective communication skills. At the end of each experimental investigation the members of each team were required to draft a one-page report describing the task performed by the team, tools and techniques used, and the results of the investigation conducted by them. Afterwards, a member of each team, selected by fellow team members, was required to give an oral presentation on the results of the experimental investigation. During the week-long program, every member of the team got his turn more than once to give an oral presentation.

 

The RSSE program participants also learned the engineering design process and carried out the design and implementation of a practical system based on their understanding of electronics, lasers, and biology.

 

Pre- and post-workshop assessment instruments were used by the program faculty to evaluate whether the program had achieved its goals and objectives in each of the four disciplinary areas included in the program, that is, engineering design, lasers, electronics, and biology. A comparison of the results of pre- and post-workshop instruments completed by the program participants has shown that they learned the science and engineering concepts presented to them during the program.

 

In addition to the pre- and post-workshop assessment instruments mentioned above, a questionnaire was administered every year to all the participants at the end of the program. The questionnaire allowed the program participants to provide an assessment of the various aspects of the RSSE program. Most of the program participants found their learning experience to be highly rewarding and very valuable. They appreciated the opportunity to design and build a practical engineering system by integrating the concepts they learned in various disciplinary areas.

 

CONCLUSIONS

 

One of the reasons for the decline in the number of engineering degrees awarded every year in the United States is fewer K-12 students are interested in pursuing careers in science and engineering. Many universities and colleges are addressing this situation by developing engineering outreach programs for K-12 students. This paper described a weeklong science and engineering outreach program for 8th and 9th students held every year at Penn State Altoona since 1997. This program consists of an array of activities based on various concepts from the disciplinary areas of electronics, lasers, engineering design, and biology. Working collaboratively, program participants learn how to (i) define a problem; (ii) determine tools and techniques to be used to solve the problem; (iii) take appropriate measurements; and (iv) draw appropriate conclusions from measurements taken. Student participants are provided instant feedback at the completion of each experimental investigation. Pre- and post-workshop assessment instruments are administered to all the program participants at the end of the program. In the past three years eighty one (81) 8th and 9th grade students completed this program. They found their learning experiences to be highly rewarding and very valuable. The program will be repeated in the summer of 2000.

 

REFERENCES

 

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