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Back to high-school: Grad students spread passion for STEM

Graduate student Aaron Short assists Metro high school students with the final design challenge for the Introduction to Engineering Design (IED) class. Graduate student Aaron Short assists Metro high school students with the final design challenge for the Introduction to Engineering Design class. A unique partnership between The Ohio State University and Metro Early College High School in Columbus puts doctoral students’ expertise to use in high school classrooms to improve learning and ignite students’ passion for STEM.

Launched with the start of the Metro School in 2006, the Metro Fellows Program provides funding for four Ohio State graduate student Fellows—one each from engineering, biology, chemistry and physics—to bring their expertise as doctoral students into K-12 classrooms. 

“The Metro Fellows Program offers our students the opportunity to learn from Ohio State graduate students who are currently carrying out research in their respective fields,” said Metro Assistant Principal Peter DeWitt. “The grad students bring their excitement and experience to bear in the classroom, amplifying the positive effect of our classroom teachers.”

Working together with teachers for ten hours per week, the Fellows bring their cutting-edge research and real-world applications to classrooms, help contribute new teaching methods and curricular materials, and add authenticity to the existing curriculum. 

Funded by the College of Engineering and College of Arts and Sciences, the program also provides a unique professional development opportunity for the graduate students. Staff from both colleges meet monthly with the Fellows to discuss challenges and goals. 

“The program helps the Fellows’ improve their ability to communicate science to the public, which is a skill they will use frequently in the future,” said Chris Andersen, director of STEM initiatives. “Getting those kinds of communication skills is not something that is part of a typical graduate program.”

As the 2013-2014 Metro Engineering Fellow, Aaron Short assisted science and engineering teacher Andrew Bruening with his Introduction to Engineering Design (IED) class and Robotics Club. The biomedical engineering doctoral student introduced a putt-putt course design project and Rube Goldberg competition to the project-based class. After building their own Rube Goldberg devices, students faced off against other classes to determine which team would advance to nearby science museum COSI’s yearly K-12 Rube Goldberg competition.

The class uses engaging projects to illustrate how to use the design process and achieve the broader goal of teaching problem-solving skills. 

“The main concept we want to get across in this class is problem-solving skills,” Short said. “Even if you’re not going into engineering, you need have to have some kind of ability to try to develop a solution for a given problem.” 

The problem-solving aspect is one that especially appeals to Short, who returned to graduate school at Ohio State after earning a degree in microbiology and working for several years as a microbiologist.

In addition to working with Bruening to improve teaching methods and tools, Short helps provide one-on-one instruction and guides students as they work on assigned design challenges. On one typical project workday, he laughed and smiled often as he answered questions and reassured students about their progress. The experience, he said, provides a unique opportunity for him to hone his mentoring and communication skills. 

“For the rest of my life I’m going to be a mentor in some aspect, which means I need to be able to explain situations and help people understand complex concepts,” he explained. “This is the perfect opportunity for me to practice. Here, you have this diverse array of kids, from those who easily understand the material to some who require you to really think outside the box for an easy way to explain things in order to help them understand it better.”

The students’ reaction to having Short and the other Metro Fellows in class has been overwhelmingly positive, said Metro School staff.

“The kids really enjoy having him here and having that additional interaction,” Bruening said. “Students in my first and second period classes constantly ask, ‘Is Aaron coming in today, is Aaron coming in today?’”

As the end of the spring 2014 semester approached, the high-schoolers became immersed in one final design challenge that simulated the global workplace. Teams of two students were each tasked with using only electronic means of communication in order to solve their choice of design problem, ranging from designing speaker stands to making interlocking tables. During the final week of class, the teams presented their final solution together to Short and Bruening. Adding a different perspective to judging design challenges is just another benefit of having graduate students in the classroom, Bruening said.

“I don’t have a formal engineering background, so having engineering students here has definitely been a help to me,” he explained. “The Fellows bring their research and experience into the classroom to connect engineering to the real-world and make it more relevant. I think it’s very, very beneficial.”

Written by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications,