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High Schools Introduce Engineering


Curriculum Center

With fewer engineers graduating from college and the need for technically savvy people growing, some faculty members from Southern Methodist University are bringing engineering to high schools. The program, called the Infinity Project, includes an introductory engineering course that allows high school students to experience the creative side of engineering. Included: A description of the Infinity Project curriculum.

If Andrew Brown had taken the type of high school course he now teaches, his career path might have been different. Brown, who teaches an engineering course at W. T. White High School in Dallas, Texas, said he became interested in physics after taking it in high school. "If I had had this [engineering] course in high school, I would have been an engineer," Brown tells Education World.

That is the goal of the high school engineering curriculum called the Infinity Project: to interest students in engineering so they can consider it as a career option.

The idea behind the Infinity Project, though, is not just to generate more engineers but also to equip young people with technical knowledge they can apply in all aspects of life. "Engineering is fundamental to understanding every day living," says Geoffrey C. Orsak, director of the Infinity Project, which is part of the Institute for Engineering Education at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Orsak is also the executive director of the Institute. "It's not just about jobs -- kids need to be educated to succeed in the new century. Students will face engineering every day. We want to bring engineering out of the class and lab and make it part of the fundamental knowledge base. We want to bring it into the mainstream of K-12 education."


To pique teens' interest in a subject usually considered dense and esoteric, the yearlong Infinity Project curriculum focuses on multimedia technology and how engineers use mathematics, science, and their own ingenuity to create new technologies. Engineers and university professors developed the curriculum. Student projects include making cellular phones and digital musical instruments.
"We want to prove to America that engineering is for everyone, not just for white males."

Another program goal is to attract more female and minority students to engineering. "We try to do things that will interest girls and boys," according to Orsak. "Engineering is ultimately an expression of creativity."

This year, 40 high schools in nine states offer the program. Last year, the enrollment already was diverse -- 55 percent of the students were female and 65 percent were members of minority groups or classified as "disadvantaged." "We want to prove to America that engineering is for everyone, not just for white males," Orsak says.

Among students who complete the course, 65 percent say they want to be engineers, Orsak continues. The institute also has developed an introduction to engineering course for college freshmen to help them make the transition from high school to college.


Although the program is not just about preparing students for jobs, Orsak tells Education World that concern among university educators about the shrinking number of engineering graduates was what spurred him to create the Infinity Project. Each year, only about 2 percent of high school graduates receive engineering or technology degrees, and only five of 1,000 women earn engineering or technology degrees, Orsak notes.

The Institute cites young people's lack of exposure to engineering, lack of interest, and lack of needed skills as some reasons more students do not major in engineering. The need for technically skilled people continues to grow, however. "High school is the most sensitive period for kids deciding on careers," says Orsak. "It was clear we needed to be in with kids then and get in their thought space. What we wanted to do first was show them that engineering is not just something done in college."

The Infinity Project course is open to sophomores, juniors, and seniors who have completed intermediate algebra and one science course. High schools that adopt the curriculum send one or more teachers -- usually from the mathematics or science department -- to participate in 40 hours of training at SMU. The institute also provides a 24-hour hotline for the high school teachers so they can call with questions.

"The real crux is teacher preparation," Orsak says. "We have to turn teachers into engineering teachers."


Several high school engineering teachers told Education World that although the curriculum is challenging to teach, exposure to engineering is valuable for students.

"The premise is to take the technology kids use every day and use that to teach engineering," says Mark Conner, who teaches science and the Infinity Project course at Homewood High School in Homewood, Alabama. His course includes teaching students how computers create sound and network. "A lot of it is learning to think like an engineer," Connor explains.

This is the first year of the program at Homewood High School and first-time enrollment "mirrors the engineering world," Conner says: Of 40 students, 38 are boys and two are girls.

At W. T. White High School in Dallas, however, where the program is in its second year, it proved so popular that enrollment went from no girls last year to 14 this year, almost half the 30-member class, says Brown. Next year, he expects between 50 and 80 students. "This opens their eyes to what engineering is -- it's really fun," according to Brown, who has a degree in physics and teaches math. "We try to interest the girls with creative projects. We're also trying to hook some of the mainstream kids -- we don't want it to be just for the gifted kids."

The most difficult part of teaching the course was shifting his thinking, Brown explains. "You teach engineering differently -- it's a creative course," he says. "It was easier once I took an engineering approach. Physicists see something happen and want to know why. Engineers see something happen and want to know 'What can I use this for?'"

A former mechanical engineer, Conner thinks students do not pursue engineering careers because they are not aware of them. "A lot is just ignorance of what engineering involves," he says. "We know what law, medicine, and accounting involve. In addition, most people don't take enough math and science [to prepare to study engineering.]"

Colleges also may want to restructure their engineering programs so students tackle certain concepts sooner and remain excited about the type of work engineers can do, Conner adds. "Most students don't really take engineering courses until they are juniors in college," he says. "[Colleges] should lay it out on the table for them; let them see what it is before they make a decision."