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Play Can Pay; Engineering Fundamentals Pipeline Leads Kids to Careers

Assistant professor and director of outreach programs in Speed School, Gary Rivoli, works with an elementary student during a recent school vist.by Kevin Rayburn

Charlie Jones finishes up his “Engineering is Elementary” class lesson at Wheeler Elementary School in Louisville then pulls out a small LEGO robot vehicle he built.

As he pushes it along on his desk, smaller LEGO pieces disappear under the crab-like creation’s hollow underbelly.

“I like building robots,” the 9-year-old says. “I was into Star Wars, but then when I saw the robots (at Speed School) I wanted to build more and came up with some new ones.”

Just days before, Jones had visited Speed School with other area school kids to watch a contest of autonomous robots built by UofL engineering students as they scooped up colored eggs.

Charlie’s robot was not a class assignment. It was something he built because he wanted to.

“This is what we’re talking about, and this is what we’re trying to do: get kids like Charlie interested in engineering, math and science early and really get them to think like engineers,” says Gary Rivoli, assistant professor and director of outreach programs in Speed School.

UofL’s engineering school is part of a local and national push involving several organizations and programs to create a so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) “pipeline.” Pipelines expose and interest young children in engineering so that, eventually, they’ll take preparatory engineering courses in high school, then enroll in college to study for engineering careers.

Such a coordinated effort is needed to keep the United States competitive in a global economy in which too few American children seem interested in science-based disciplines, says Speed’s Dean Mickey Wilhelm.

“It’s critical we find ways to gain the interest of young people in engineering and retain that interest as they go through the entire educational process,” he says.

That’s part of the reason why Speed created its outreach programs within the school’s Department of Engineering Fundamentals.

Pat Ralston, chair of engineering fundamentals, says local interest in Speed as a hub for getting kids excited in engineering has grown rapidly in the last three years.

Pat Ralston, chair of engineering fundamentals, says local interest in Speed as a hub for getting kids excited in engineering has grown rapidly in the last three years.

“We started a pilot program at Wheeler in 2006 and that has been so successful we’ve expanded it to more elementary and middle schools and have established one pipeline that leads to Jeffersontown High School,” she says. “Once you establish one pipeline, we want to do more in the future, one that leads to Manual High School (the new engineering magnet school), for instance.”

The first Wheeler program was begun in 2006 by Joe Hagerty, professor of civil and environmental engineering and Wilhelm, in cooperation with the school's principal, Julie Barrett.

Rivoli works to develop and present engineering lessons with teachers at Jefferson County Public Schools. Currently in the pipeline are Wheeler, Watterson and Jeffersontown elementary schools and Newburg and Carrithers middle schools. The Engineering is Elementary program is the elementary school component and the In the Middle of Engineering is the middle school part.

The elementary lessons are derived from units developed by the Boston Museum of Science and are used in classrooms across the nation. Students who continue to the middle school component use lessons developed by Gateway To Technology, part of the nonprofit Project Lead the Way. It is a national sponsor of middle and high school math and science programs.

These feed into Jeffersontown High School, the engineering preparatory component and part of Project Lead the Way.

The programs all rely on the participation not only of educators in Speed and the JCPS but of parents, alumni, practicing engineers and others who serve as mentors and role models.

A recent Engineering is Elementary class at Wheeler demonstrated how a typical session works.

Sixteen students broken into groups of four tackled an engineering project led by Wheeler teachers Elaine Altman, Diane McCune and Denise Buschermole.

Before the hands-on projects begin students engage in story discussions, complete workbook assignments, listen to lessons and observe demonstrations and engage in give-and-take question-and-answer exchanges.

Last year the class built and tested bridges from model kits. This year they are learning about filtration and are building their own working water filters out of common items such as soda bottles, cotton, gravel and cheesecloth.

But it’s more than just play. The kids discuss the engineering concepts involved, how to work together in teams to find compromise solutions to problems and how to design the most cost-effective filter.

But it’s more than just play. The kids discuss the engineering concepts involved, how to work together in teams to find compromise solutions to problems and how to design the most cost-effective filter.

“It’s not just the mechanics, but the real-world issues,” Rivoli says. “It’s one thing to make a filter but another to make the most efficient one for the least cost. It’s a balancing act, and they learn those kinds of things, too.”

Before they get down to business, the kids discuss a book, Saving Salida’s Turtle, about water pollution and ways to purify water.

“Every project begins with a story,” says Buschermole.

Student Josie Hile’s father, Jonathan, discusses filtration and shows students in the class various filters, including an industrial-grade ventilation filter. Hile, director of safety at UPS in Louisville, says his daughter knew he was a natural presenter for the class and asked him to come.

“I enjoy teaching and working with kids,” Hile says. “I think this helps make it fun for them, seeing the demonstration, and I hope to continue doing it.”

Conveying that kind of enthusiasm from working professionals to youngsters is part of the pipeline idea, Rivoli says.

“We’ve had people from the Louisville Water Company, Army Corp of Engineers and other places, a lot of them UofL alumni, come in and talk to the kids, and that kind of interaction is infectious,” he says.

“We also want to encourage more minorities and women to go into engineering, so when we bring, say, a woman into the class who works at Raytheon or the water company it shows the kids that women are engineers, too.”

Another component of Speed’s Engineering Fundamentals department, the INSPIRE program, has for many years enthused minority children in area schools about engineering. Brenda Hart, professor, directs the program. Its annual summer sessions exposing kids to engineering projects at Speed and at area companies have persuaded many youngsters to pursue engineering careers.

Another component of the STEM pipeline initiatives is teacher training, conducted at area schools with UofL’s guidance.

“We need more people to conduct these classes as the pipeline grows,” Rivoli says.

If Charlie Jones is typical, then the pipeline is already working.

The third grader, when asked if he wants to be an engineer, simply says, “Yeah, really a lot.”

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