Pre-engineering Course For High School?


Q: Below I've pasted an email that I recently sent to a professor at my Alma Marta. If anybody can answer the questions that I've posed, I'd appreciate the info. Also, I'm interested in anybody's and everybody's thoughts about a broad pre-engineering course as I describe below. Perhaps such a thing exists. IF so, can you tell me a little about the class/ program? Thanks Everybody! My name is David Fennell ('94) and I direct the product development group at a mid-sized manufacturing firm in Connecticut. After a brief search of RPI's web site, I found your email address and some information about CIPCE. If you don't mind, I'd like to share some of my thoughts with you and ask for your ideas and advice. Recently, a friend and I were discussing the current secondary educational system in the US. Throughout the conversation we each expressed dismay that we had not received sufficient exposure to engineering topics during our secondary educations. As a result, neither of us fealt that we were adaquately prepared for the math and science courses that encountered our freshmen years. During this conversation, we both mentioned that we didn't have any real understanding of what engineering was about at the time that we entered Rensselaer our freshman years. As it turned out, we both liked what we found at RPI, and now we are both successful engineers. (My friend is a new professor at Princeton's CS department.) Since my conversation with Dave, I've done a little research and I've asked a number of technology and education professionals about engineering curriculums offered at high schools. Outside of specialized Magnet schools and an occasional private school, I have not yet come up with any pre-engineering curriculum or course materials intended for broad distribution. It seems that engineering topics are simply ignored by the vast majority of our secondary educational system. This is a shame. I believe that exposure to engineering topics may be exactly what is needed to energize the students and to promote math and science learning, which are both certainly in need of a jolt. I'm quite sure that a pre-engineering curriculum touching on many of the basic engineering principals would: 1) Teach students basic concepts that will prove useful in their adult lives, regardless of the careers they choose to pursue. Speaking in political and social terms; it behooves us to work for a society that is well informed in a wide breadth of topics; including basic technology. 2) Illustrate the relevance of certain other courses that may seem obscure to students. Teachers are currently struggling to fit in practical labs to show students the applications of math and science. Unfortunately, there is only so many labs and extracurricular lessons that can be crammed into a course before vital units are deleted or only given brief attention. A pre-engineering course would allow an instructor to reinforce trigonometry and geometry lessons while helping students design a go-cart suspension system. An interested student is a student that learns. 3) Engineering topics exercise the mind more than other subjects. Engineering is pure concept ... no room for regurgitation of temporarily memorized facts. I take it as self evident that there is no better format in which to encourage logical thought and to foster a student's problem solving ability. Although art topics are held by contemporary culture as the appropriate or best means to stimulate a student's creativity, I believe that engineering topics may be even better. 4) Expose students to careers and ideas. More students will be drawn to the sciences, math and engineering topics. Most high students, frankly, don't know that first thing about engineering. It's no wonder that students flock to the "fluff" subjects like communications and psychology. I'm sure that there are more benefits of such a curriculum that I haven't inumerated here. If, indeed, my thoughts are on-track, then why haven't school districts across the nation embraced these ideas; offering a pre-engineering elective to their students? Has anybody ever tried to create the necessary materials (Curriculum, text books, teachers reference / training classes, lab manuals, lab equipment packages, etc.) and distribute them? If nobody ever has, would some or all of these materials be well received by the teaching community? If a person or group were to take on the task of creating a pre-engineering HS curriculum w/ associated materials, what resources and support would be available to them? Would an educational institution or government agency be interested in providing the resources and infrastructure necessary to do the job right? Basically, I'd like to lend my efforts and abilities to an effort as I described above, but I don't believe that I have all of the experience, education or resources to take on this project by myself. Do you have any ideas? My thoughts are more developed than I've presented here. If you believe that a more formal presentation of my ideas to you or to any other person/organization would serve this idea better, then I would appreciate your "heads up".

A: As a former physics teacher I really appreciated your remarks about the lack of engineering topics or prep courses in high schools. Many of my students wanted to become engineers, but lacked the background to tackle the difficulties in such a curricula when they entered college. Few have ever made it through to become engineers. Dince I was not an engineer I could only advise them from a practical viewpoint of study habits, scientific curiosity development, and using their minds to come up with solutions. Many of our high school science and math courses are not geared to pre-engineering majors. Most courses have a set curriculum which is focused on the state testing programs. The best teachers would set aside some time and some topics to demonstrate what engineering is. In our inner city school we had many such teachers willing to take the time to do projects, focus the pre-calc or trig to real life problems in design and building things, coming up with ideas for future projects, etc. We had several design projects which the kids would enter in conjunction with such companies as Lockheed aerospace, or Rhoam and Haas (sp??) . We had engineers as tutors and mentors. We entered (and were very successful) the National Engineering and Science Fair competitions. But, our time and resourses were limited. I don't know what else we could do given the short time and limited resources, plus the mandate from the state to do certain things in our courses. Your ideas are appreciated and I will pass them on to my colleagues who are still teaching in the high school.

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