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Sharing the Passion PUBLIC ACCESS

A Program Aimed at Inspiring Under-Served Children Teaches Engineers to Communicate the Essence of Their Work.

[+] Author Notes

Tara Chklovski is the founder and chief executive officer of Iridescent. which can be found online at www.iridescentlearning.org.

Mechanical Engineering 131(10), 40-43 (Oct 01, 2009) (6 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2009-OCT-4

This article talks about Iridescent’s “Engineers as Teachers” program that has been designed to teach professional and student engineers how to share their research with the public. Iridescent is a nonprofit educational organization operating since July 2006. Iridescent's mission is to inspire girls and minorities to pursue careers in science and engineering, to lift up their communities, and to tackle some of the world's biggest problems. In the past 12 years, Iridescent has delivered more than 120 multisession courses on real-world topics that reached more than 4000 under-served children and their parents. The courses are made possible by volunteer engineers who worked with Iridescent to develop their communication and curricular skills so they could teach and inspire children. Through Iridescent’s training program, engineers learn how to communicate complex principles in engaging, simple ways. This not only helps them inspire children, but also improves the ability of engineers to communicate the essence of their work to nontechnical professionals.

Robyn Strumpf is a typically harried mechanical engineering undergraduate at the University of Southern California. Between classes, labs, and projects, she is busy all the time. Yet she makes time in her schedule to share her love of engineering with youngsters. "Teaching children reminded me why I chose engineering as a career," she said.

Welcome to "Engineers as Teachers," a program developed by Iridescent, a nonprofit educational organization that teaches professional and student engineers how to share their research with the public.

Through training, engineers learn how to communicate complex principles in engaging, simple ways. This not only helps them inspire children, but also improves the ability of engineers to communicate the essence of their work to non-technical professionals.

Iridescent's mission is to inspire girls and minorities to pursue careers in science and engineering, to lift up their communities, and to tackle some of the world's biggest problems. We are using an untapped resource to fulfill this mission-engineers.

Children from minority communities rarely come in contact with engineers. Engineering is rarely taught in school. As a result, children do not know what engineering is, or about the field's exciting and compelling challenges. Few aspire to engineering careers, and those who do may not know how to prepare for them. This is reflected in engineering profiles and statistics. According to the 2007 report, "Engineering by the Numbers," by the American Society for Engineering Education, in the 2006-2007 academic year, the United States awarded only 18 percent of its bachelor's degrees in engineering to women and only 11 percent to African-Anlericans and Hispanics.

Engineers can help fill this gap, by inspiring, supporting, and equipping elementary and middle school students to pursue careers in science and engineering. But this will not happen overnight, nor will it occur unless engineers first master how to talk about their work with youngsters.

Engineers the need to focus on quality and long-term impact of their interactions with the community. While many corporations fund and participate in community Olltl·each programs, few evaluate the impact of their interactions. A presentation or guest visit by a local engineer will excite students. They like the pictures and videos. Yet they may not understand the actual content of the presentation, and are less likely to develop a persistent interest in the topic.

Sixth grader at a charter middle school in log Angles learn about optics by navigating an "optical obstacles Course"

Grahic Jump LocationSixth grader at a charter middle school in log Angles learn about optics by navigating an "optical obstacles Course"

We need to set the bar much higher, so that every presentation is a meaningful experience for volunteers and children alike. If engineers learn how to communicate their research in clear, engaging ways, they will not only increase their likely impact on the career decisions of children and teens, but they will also learn to communicate the most compelling aspects of their work to a larger audience. Think about that the next time you have to pitch an idea to a colleague, a manager, or a potential investor.

How would you explain Bernoulli's principle or how radiation works to a fifth grader? Here are the rules of the game: You cannot use equations or scientific terms. You have to make sure he or she understands the concept well enough to apply it to a new problem. Finally-and this one is really important-you have to keep the attention of a fifth grader. This is not a simple game to play, but Iridescent is beginning to identify some winning strategies. Here are some of the nuggets we have gleaned along the way:

It takes years to become an expert in a field, to acquire a great deal of content knowledge, to mentally organize it, to flexibly retrieve important aspects with little effort, and finally to be able to apply this deep understanding to new situations. Once an expert achieves this level of understanding, he or she should be able to identify the most important aspects from the field relatively easily. This is the most crucial step in the whole communication game. Here are some examples of how we boil some challenging topics down to their key concepts:

Bird flight aerodynamics: Gravity, lift (angle of attack, pressure, camber), thrust (action-reaction), and drag (viscosity, pressure).

Animal locomotion: Center of gravity, lift, thrust, drag, and buoyancy.

Heat transfer and energy-efficient houses: Conduction, convection, and radiation as applied to passive heating and cooling systems.

Biomechanics of break dancing: Center of gravity, muscles, and levers.

Cardiovascular mechanics: Pressure, Bernoulli's principle, anatomy of the heart, and valves.

Structural color: Color, rectilinear propagation of light, reflection, refraction, and interference.

Medical imaging: X-rays, projections, waves, ultrasound, magnetism, resonance, relaxation times, computerized imaging.

The next step is to identify the learning objective for each class. This is the one idea you would like your audi-ence to walk away with at the end of each session. Just one! Many engineers and scientists find this difficult, since their profession builds on a great deal of interconnected work and theory. Remember, though, that it took you years to learn all that information, and that you have only 10 minutes to impart a concept. Identifying a single learning objective is a powerful exercise that will force you to winnow and focus.

Once you have your set oflearning objectives (one for each class), the next step is to develop short presentations of 10 slides each. The slides should be very visual, with little or no text. How visual? Someone looking at your presentation should be able to figure out the full story just by scanning the slides. Pictures work well. Videos and animations that illustrate a phenomenon or application are even better, and can motivate your audience as well as demonstrate concepts that are difficult to explain with words alone.

Sinchai Tsao (second from left), a biomedical engineering Ph.D. student, explains wave interference and diffraction to high school students from a charter school in South Los Angeles.

Grahic Jump LocationSinchai Tsao (second from left), a biomedical engineering Ph.D. student, explains wave interference and diffraction to high school students from a charter school in South Los Angeles.

Now that you have your lO-minute presentation, the next step is to make sure the audience can apply this new learning. You have to identify hands-on experiments or projects that arouse their curiosity about the topic as well as help them test, transfer, and reinforce their learning. For instance if you want students to understand neutral buoyancy, you could have them design a fish using a balloon and some weights. The challenge would be to use just the right amount of air in the balloon and the right amount of weight to make the fish float at a particular . depth in the water cylinder.

This is the heart of the whole interaction. The depth of learning that occurs while passively listening to a lecture or watching a demonstration will never compare with learning from building, experimenting, testing, and problem solving.

The last and very crucial step in the whole process is to make the audience stop and assess their progress. Many times, if you are building something, it will fail on the first trial run. Engineering requires persistence and reflection: what worked, what didn't work, and what to change next time (as there will always be a next time).

So you need to draw your audience in from all their exciting experiments and get them to sit, think, and share with each other: "What worked today?" "How could the design be improved?" "What were you proud oflearning?"

Many times, the model or experiment does not work at the end of a session. Many students will walk away with a sense of failure. It is your job to make sure they reflect on all that they gained through the experience, and that they walk away full of ideas that they might try next time.

Sinchai Tsao, a doctoral candidate concentrating in Medical Imaging at University of Southern California, has been co- teaching Iridescent's course on maganetic resonance imaging at an inner city charter school in Los Angeles. He uses beautiful medical images to motivate students to learn such key physics concepts as the behavior of waves, electricity, and magnetism. These concepts are not only central to MR imaging, but also necessary for high school students who want to go onto college.

Sinchai finds the experience invaluable in helping develop confidence in his own ability to present fundamental concepts, many of which he has not revisited in a while. "My students help me question my intuition about key concepts that I take for granted. They also challenge me to express complex concepts in an intuitive and logical manner, which are all key skills that are central in my training as a Ph.D.," Sinchai said.

At Iridescent, we have found this a common response to teaching. All the hard work and preparation devoted to planning lessons give you-the teacher-a more profound understanding of the field. It reconnects engineers with the joys of tinkering, hones their communication skills, and provides the novel experience of inspiring children to grow up to be engineers. The last point is especially fulfilling, since a child's grateful hug or high five is more immediate and tangible than the rewards of traditional engineering.

Nearly all the things around us-objects that have been manufactured, built, cultivated, or delivered-have been influenced directly or indirectly by an engineer, a scientist, or a mathematician. Yet these professions account for less than 4 percent of the U.S. working population. Iridescent's mission is to change that, to both add to the total number of engineers and to inspire and equip girls and minority students to strive to become engineers and scientists.

Iridescent has been operating since July 2006. Since then, we have delivered more than 120 multi-session courses on real-world topics that reached more than 4,000 under-served children and their parents. The courses are made possible by volunteer engineers- more than 180 of them-who worked with us to develop their communicatio'n and curricular skills so they could teach and inspire children.

Each course consists of four two-hour sessions. Each session is held once per week. Families are invited to courses that are held after school, so that we can engage parents to support their child's interest in science. Course topics developed this semester ranged from the physics of MRI to animal locomotion. Tests are conducted before and after every course to measure changes in interest and content knowledge.

Students are given a test before and after each course'. These are the resu lts for a recent course on animal locomotion. Questions included "What does an engineer do?" (Question 11. "What happens to the air flow around a cylinder?" (Question 21, and " If an alligator is submerged in water, how much water will be displaced?" (Quest ion 81.

Grahic Jump LocationStudents are given a test before and after each course'. These are the resu lts for a recent course on animal locomotion. Questions included "What does an engineer do?" (Question 11. "What happens to the air flow around a cylinder?" (Question 21, and " If an alligator is submerged in water, how much water will be displaced?" (Quest ion 81.

Last year we had an average of 15 percent gains in content knowledge. This year we are up to 40 percent and hope to increase to 60 percent in the fall. These assessments however have been checking for gains in interest, s'cientific vocabulary, understanding of the processes of modeling and testing, and factual recall. The next step would be to improve our training and implementation programs so that 80 percent of participants are able to transfer their learning to a new problem, conduct rigorous experiments, generate causal explanations, use effective troubleshooting practices, and develop a good understanding of what "doing science" really means.

Sometimes, the results are profound. Three women who are engineers developed and taught family science courses in fall 2008 at different low-income schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The goal was not only to teach engineering concepts, but to demonstrate to students that women can be engineers too.

Emily Hedges and Kimbedy Popp taught participants about drag, thrust, viscosity, and buoyancy, and showed students how different animals had adapted to move in different environments. Robyn Strumpf discussed why different types of sports equipment are made out of particular materials. For instance, students learned about the materials used to make baseball bats by measuring the deflection properties of wood, aluminum, and steel.

They also learned about why some materials are appropriate for basketballs and others for tennis balls by making their own bouncy balls.

After the sessions, we asked the participants to draw what an engineer looked like. Several years ago, the Boston Museum of Science did a comprehensive survey of elementary school students and found the most frequent picture of engineers drawn by students was of a man operating a locomotive. At Shenandoah Street Elementary School in Los Angeles, however, 75 percent of the students drew a woman making rockets, airplanes, cars, or similar devices.

Those children may not all grow up to be engineers, but they certainly understand what engineers do, and they see that it is a field open to everyone. Multiply that by hundreds of courses and thousands of students, and you have the reason why "Engine.ers as Teachers" is a rapidly growing and powerful movement.

The program appeals to both the engineers and to the inner city community. Engineers learn that communicating science in exciting ways is a vital skill. Children learn what it means to be an engineer, what makes it exciting, and how they can prepare for a successful career in our profession.

Our goal is simple: Spread the passion. Inspire a child to become an engineer.

Engineers Teaching children (below, from left)about the "Physics of Sailing,"the"Biomechanics of Diving,""Optics" and the Biomechanic of Breakdancing." New attitudes (above) emerge as students gain new insights.

Grahic Jump LocationEngineers Teaching children (below, from left)about the "Physics of Sailing,"the"Biomechanics of Diving,""Optics" and the Biomechanic of Breakdancing." New attitudes (above) emerge as students gain new insights.

Copyright © 2009 by ASME
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