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How to Share Your Love for Engineering with the Spongebob Crowd

From IEEE-USA Today's Engineer
September 9, 2009

By Robin Peress

No matter how old you are, September has a way of sending you back in time to memories of new classmates, new notebooks, and powdery boxes of blackboard chalk.

For Larry Nelson, a consultant in microprocessor design, September still prompts him to go back to classrooms — these days as a professional engineer who loves talking to kids about his work.

Nelson, president of his own consulting firm in Webster, Mass., and a recent Pre-College Education Committee representative for Region 1, belongs to a small legion of engineers who have heeded the call “to keep alive the innate curiosity of young children about science as they move into middle school and high school,” as the Committee’s goal states.

The drive to place more science, technology, engineering and math studies in school curricula continues to pick up steam. Virtually all engineering societies have their own educational outreach programs or belong to joint endeavors. Magazines like Go For It and Web sites such as TryEngineering.org have sprung up to appeal to kids.

Find your niche

The IEEE’s own programs include the Teacher In-Service Program (TISP) and the Teacher Reward/Grant Program. TISP trains IEEE volunteers on how to collaborate with teachers in order to best demonstrate the use of STEM disciplines in the classroom. The grant program provides small grants of up to $500 to fund unique projects that introduce students to engineering; teachers must work with IEEE member to qualify for the grant.

Some members prefer working behind the scenes this way, but others seek a niche working with the ultimate consumer. If you’re driven to feed a child’s intellect, and you can put ideas like nanotechnology in everyday words, and you possess a bit of Captain Kangaroo’s showmanship, the obvious choice is to take engineering to the front — the front of an elementary- or middle-school class.

As IEEE-USA President Gordon Day observed, engineers who volunteer in classrooms “enjoy explaining what they do.”

Translating arcane terms for pre-teens is motivation enough, but there’s another timely reason to share your knowledge with schools right now: to help patch holes left by budget cuts.

Bonnie Maur, science coordinator for the Monroe, Conn., school district, says recent faculty layoffs have led to the shelving of some plans for new science curricula. With fewer teachers on hand, staff in supervisory roles are being pressed back into service as classroom instructors, and away from critical planning.

“Budgetary issues have reduced [the number of] teachers as well as support for teachers,” says Maur, who will find herself back in classroom teaching this fall. “Volunteers are always welcome, and mentorships assist students in better preparing for life. Engineers could assist students in learning problem-solving strategies, which is the key to scientific inquiry.”

Volunteers need mentors, too

 Even as volunteers are mentoring kids, they need mentors of their own to help ensure a successful classroom visit. From dreaming up cool demonstrations to politicking with the school principal, volunteers need guidance from someone who’s done it before — as Nelson calls it, a champion.

“By champions, I mean someone who will provide the continuous pull or push to keep things moving. Many volunteers will be willing to give their time but will walk away at the first push back [from the school]. Individuals like myself will not take no as an answer and will find ways around the roadblocks. Some teachers and administrators will fight within the system to get any resources they can get. When I am talking to companies on other topics, I often feel them out for donations in materials, cash, or other resources to push things along. A champion is anyone that does that little bit extra to help make it work.”

There’s another kind of champion, too. It’s someone whose contribution is more that of a muse — someone so impassioned about teaching children, he kindles this feeling in others.

It’s easy to get swept up this way when talking to Gabriel Robins.

Dr. Robins is a professor of computer science at the University of Virginia, with an exceptional number of articles and recognitions to his name, among other academic distinctions. For years he has served the IEEE’s precollege education mission by showing kids what engineers do. He is earnest and entertaining, and his No. 1 tip is: Make it fun.

Mesmerize Them

“The most important thing is to get kids engaged,” he says. “You have to get their attention in a matter of seconds. You don’t want to drone on and on, like the teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  When I was in school, the best teachers went out of their way to inspire students. I made a point of becoming one of those teachers.”

Fun can also act as a conduit for an under-the-radar message. “We need more engineers,” says Dr. Robins, emphatically. “There are only a few hundred people in the world who actually know how to build a jet engine from scratch or build a computer from scratch. The rest are foot soldiers who carry out the actual construction from the blueprints.  But somebody has to know how to build these things from scratch. The aim is to create value and push technology into the future. New technology propels the human species forward.”

Dr. Robins created an informal computer science museum in the hallways by his office at UVa — a series of large glass-front display cases housing artifacts from the dawn of computers and other technologies. Inside are antediluvian circuit boards, punch cards and vacuum tubes arrayed like so many fossils. (See www.cs.virginia.edu/brochure/museum.html). Before visiting a class, all he has to do is scoop up some of these objects for a ready-made talk about the history of computer science.

“Kids find that mesmerizing,” he says.

Sharing this view is Tanya Kaufman, Deputy Superintendent, School District 2, of the New York City Public Schools. With more than 30 years’ experience in K-12 education, Kaufman says presentations should be less technical, and more practical. “It’s all about the ‘how’,” she says.  “Young kids love taking apart computers to see how they work.”

The National Engineers Week Foundation encourages volunteers to meet with teachers at the school before they face the children; the personal contact is important, they say, and it will help position your presentation to be on target with the class’s needs.  You should give the teacher a brief description of the kind of engineering projects you’ve handled, and discuss any aids, such as a video monitor or overhead projector, that you’ll need to help illustrate your talk.

My P.R. Consultant is 9 Years Old

This is probably a good point at which to pause and rewind the story a bit. There’s still the matter of finding a classroom to visit, and your success has something to do with the adage about “who you know,” not “what you know.”

As Larry Nelson succinctly puts it: “Get a child.” Volunteers who have a son, daughter, niece or nephew in an elementary school are more likely to be invited to come and work with a classroom of children.

“Engineers are usually encouraged to come to classrooms if they have a kid in the school,” says Sandra Kim, IEEE-USA’s Program Manager, Member and Professional Activities. “There’s no across-the-board way to make this overture to a teacher or principal, but one thing that works is if you have a vested interest there. It makes you a known quantity.”

If you offer to teach a lesson but are not a parent, some security precautions, like a background check, may be in store. This requirement can differ from state to state. “It depends on the school, and whether or not you plan to visit more than once,” says Nelson.

Congratulations, you’ve now been vetted, and you’re fired up to give a rousing talk on anemometers or charge polarization. 

A primer on connecting with kids

Before you go, take a few minutes to review some basic dos and don’ts that can help you relate to your young audience.

Ellen Robinson, outreach coordinator for EngineerYourLife.com, says, “Do share how your work makes a difference in the lives of others, and don’t use dense technical language.”

The National Engineers Week Foundation Web site, www.Eweek.org, recommends very pointed things: volunteers should dress as they would for a day on the job; refrain from using jargon; ask students to help hand out materials; pace the presentation to allow time for questions and answers; and make the presentation fun because it’s important for kids to know engineers are doing what they love to do. In fact, all of Eweek.org is a trove of must-read how-tos on developing presentations for young students. Click on the tab “Get Involved!” for many ready-to-use ideas. The foundation is supported by a coalition of engineering organizations, including IEEE-USA. See www.eweek.org/GetInvolved/GetInvolved.aspx.

“Sharing Science with Children: A Survival Guide for Scientists and Engineers,” produced in the 1990s by the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science, is perhaps the most comprehensive booklet for classroom-bound volunteers. Its Get Ready, Get Set, Go section features dozens of simple yet sound pieces of wisdom, including:

Students are bound to ask why and how you became an engineer, and what engineers really do. This is your opening to talk about engineering’s impact on everyday life, preferably with concrete examples they can relate to. But let the kids broach this. Engineers are advised to avoid heavy-handed career pitches or discussion of the profession’s public image, especially vs. that of other professions.

Dr. Robins says image is a non-issue, especially in this setting. “Portraying engineers as movers and shakers is not the goal. That is a myopic point of view. ‘Image’ is a side effect of the value and impact of what you do; image is not something you set out to create. Classroom talks should be educational, not promotional.”

Sharing Science With Children (online in printable form at www.noao.edu/education/tguides/scitxt.html) also features a section called Thinking and Learning Characteristics of Young People, which gives brief, highly readable descriptions of children’s stages of development as thinkers and learners, divided into early elementary, late elementary, and middle grades. This powerful material is worth reading even if you think you know what makes young folks tick.

The gender connection

Although age clearly divides children into different groups, there’s no such divide between girls’ and boys’ grasp of science and math. In other words, as you’re speaking to children, just assume that the boys are as smart as the girls.

In Dusty Fisher’s experience, however, the interest and aptitude girls show in younger grades must be followed up in middle school by giving them “the strength and conviction to stay the course.” The IEEE member says that girls face heavy peer pressure in middle school to become something glamorous like a beauty queen or celebrity. Ms. Fisher is the current chair of the Pre-College Education Committee and an engineer who travels to Japan to consult on merging technologies of hand-held and online devices. “When you ask them if they like to take things apart, remind them that they’re being engineers.” Girls see engineering as a way to be a better doctor or lawyer, not as a field of its own, she says. This is worth keeping in mind as you talk with them.

For encouragement’s sake, many organizations have developed Web sites, videos, publications, special activity groups and other vehicles created specifically for girls up to high school age.  Among these are the Society of Women Engineers’ Aspire; the National Academy of Engineering’s Engineer Girl; and Eweek’s Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day. More subtly, the American Society of Civil Engineers uses female figures throughout its  “ASCEville” web pages to guide kids through a career-oriented (and clever) feature called “Civil What?” 

Although girls have the same capacity as boys to learn science and math, they can benefit from a unique teaching approach. Dr. Robins saw this with the creation of Alice, a software environment that teaches computer programming by letting users manipulate 3D figures in various scenarios using a drag-and-drop interface (see www.alice.org). Alice is the brainchild of Dr. Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon University professor who gained renown for his “Last Lecture”; he died of cancer in 2008 at age 47.

When it was introduced in the early 1990s, Alice caught fire with middle-school girls, who responded to the storytelling power and creative control it offered. Where once girls were believed to be less interested than boys in programming, Dr. Robins says, “Alice’s virtual wonderland turned that theory on its head.”

Benefits to your career

When you do things for a good cause, a sense of accomplishment is not far behind.

With schoolroom volunteering, you are helping your career from the moment you walk in.

Ms. Fisher says one immediate benefit is in the way it helps you polish your presentation skills when speaking to peers, which is hugely important. “In today’s economic times, we all have to self-promote. This volunteering helps you gain confidence to walk into a roomful of strangers, regardless of their age. It’s a great learning process.”

It’s also a boon to networking. “Many schools have boards, superintendents and bankers who want to know who’s coming into the school,” she says. Having that exposure is helpful to you. “If you’re with a big company, it’s good p.r. for them, too. And it gives you something to talk about at your next networking event.”


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