Engineering a new middle-school experience

Posted: November 6, 2013

When Ohio State engineering students and educators team up in middle school classrooms something special happens. Translating Engineering Research to K-8 (TEK8), a new course that debuted this autumn in The Ohio State University College of Engineering, prepares and enables the college students to teach public school pre-teens a little bit about engineering. In the meantime, they learn a lot about giving back.

The course is the result of a unique partnership between Ohio State’s College of Engineering, the College of Education and Human Ecology, and KIPP Journey Academy in Columbus. It aims to introduce underserved and underrepresented students in K-8 to engineering through hands-on exposure to the design process. The course also helps Ohio State engineering students strengthen their communication skills and solidify their own understanding by teaching K-8 students the societal impacts of engineering.

“TEK8 is all about introducing engineering to young students while they are still in a formative stage of their lives and are considering what they like, what they’re good at, what’s fun, that kind of thing,” explains Howard Greene, director of K-12 outreach for the college, who helped design and launch the course.

The hope is that by making engineering accessible and fun, more kids will consider the field as a possible career choice. But they’re not the only ones who benefit.

“Our undergraduate students are learning about career ambassadorship, or being able to relate the societal significance of the research that they’re working on to a non-technical audience,” said Greene. “It’s a critical skill.”

Before stepping foot in a middle school classroom, each of the 12 Ohio State engineering students enrolled in TEK8 completed a summer research internship under the tutelage of College of Engineering faculty. During those internships, students worked on a wide-range of real-world engineering projects, including improving the fuel efficiency of cars, stealth passive radar, using bioglass as synthetic tooth enamel, and several projects related to cancer research.

Once the course began, the engineering students were tasked with creating an engaging, age-appropriate story to share their research experience with the middle-schoolers. They created a video of their lab experience and translated their research into hands-on, mini design challenges.

“Their job has been to create open-ended design challenges that have middle school students learn how to solve problems using the engineering design process,” said Andrew Parkhurst an engineering lecturer and one of two TEK8 course instructors. “That really challenges them to tap into their creative side.”

Middle-schoolers from KIPP Academy work with Buckeye engineers Roland Tallos and Elsa Burrow
The Buckeye engineers guided 540 minutes of classroom instruction time, delivering and facilitating a total of six design challenges during KIPP’s afterschool program, the KIPP Connect Boys and Girls Club.

“I wanted to participate in TEK8 because I’m from the Columbus area and I know what it’s like to be an underserved student,” said Shayla Breedlove, an electrical and computer engineering major. “I wanted to connect with those students and share my experience, so they know they can do it and succeed too.”

Anita Mullins, KIPP’s 21st century and community partnerships coordinator, said her students are being exposed to topics they might otherwise not know about and are becoming excited about engineering and math.

“The engineering project has been a really great experience,” said Mullins. “The Ohio State students have been great leaders. They’re able to break down the concepts plainly enough for our students, so they are fully engaged and able to go straight into the project and learn as much as they can.”

While Ohio State isn’t the first university to implement this type of outreach-focused course, its program has some unique features. Basing the classroom lessons and projects on the engineering students’ summer research experiences is one key difference.
Another unique component of the Ohio State program is the strong partnership with educators. The autumn semester course—team-taught by faculty member Paul Post from Ohio State’s College of Education and Human Ecology, as well as an engineering instructor—also includes current middle school teachers.
“When you see these engineering students and you hear how much time they’re devoting to this, it motivates me to go back and share that with our student population,” said Steve Gdovin, a teacher at Jones Middle School in Upper Arlington. “I really love when they talk about their design challenges and the connections they make to their research, because I can take that back to my classroom and provide real-life information that I never would have known unless I did the research on my own.”

The teachers also provided a crash course in how to effectively teach middle-schoolers. That, engineering students said, gave them confidence in their own expertise before they ever stepped into a classroom.  

“These teachers have a passion they’ve been developing their entire career and I’m an engineering student whose GPA is high on my priority list," explained Nate Huntsberger, a mechanical engineering major. “They’ve turned the class into something where I don’t even care about my GPA, I just want to do as well as I can for these kids.”

Written by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications,