It takes years to develop the knowledge and expertise necessary to practice engineering. As Nebraska’s science and math teachers recently showed, however, it takes only a day to sow seeds of interest in the field.
The 2010 UNL Excellence in Engineering Education Institute, coordinated by CYFS and UNL’s Nebraska Transportation Center, gave dozens of Nebraska’s middle and high school students the chance to learn about the foundations and numerous applications of engineering. The mid-July retreats – held in Lincoln, Omaha, Lexington and Hastings, Neb. – were led by nearly 30 teachers who developed lesson plans during UNL’s Professional Development Math and Science Summer Technology Institute in June.
The month-long interval gave teachers ample time to design and hone curricula informed by the June presentations of UNL’s engineering faculty. The teachers’ preparations resulted in highly interactive, 45-minute lessons that emphasized the importance of basic science and math principles already encountered by participating students.
Those lessons included using a combination of mathematical formulas and Web-based applications to determine the parabolic outline of an interstate overpass; learning to read a contour map before using a software program to construct a virtual roadway across multiple elevation changes; and creating pipe-cleaner replicas of traditional and roundabout intersections as a starting point for discussing the pros and cons of each.
UNL graduate students in engineering gave participants further insight into the field by leading tours through several laboratories and research areas. In a structures testing lab, the students witnessed 160,000 pounds of pressure crush a concrete cylinder and learned how engineers test the strength and duration of bridges. Later, they used LIDAR guns – which emit light beams rather than radar guns’ radio waves – to clock the speed of cars passing through the UNL campus. Finally, they learned about future applications of radiofrequency identification technology and saw it visually track them as avatars on a large television screen.
Mary Herrington, a participating science teacher from Lincoln’s Culler Middle School, believes the hands-on nature of the experience prepares students for a lifetime of learning and critical thinking.
“The best part of it, I think, is the opportunity for student collaboration,” Herrington said. “You come up with a question, you give them some [guidance], and you say, ‘OK, now work with your team.’ You’re building a collaborative group, cooperative learning, and really, life skills.”
All in all, not a bad day’s work.
The UNL Excellence in Engineering Education Institute is funded, in part, by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Post-Secondary Education. It is co-directed by Dr. Larry Rilett (NTC) and Dr. Gina Kunz (CYFS).