June 17, 2008

Engineering Education

By Hoff, Joseph

Reaching out to female engineering students Too often, professors present lectures just as they were taught. Professor Glenn Ellis of Smith College, a liberal arts college for women in Northampton, Mass., begs to differ, opposing any such method. But he doesn't merely rail against the monotony. Instead, he offers solutions that produce results. This is essential since engineering is a field that has not traditionally attracted as many women as it has men.

"We know a whole lot more about how people learn, and it needs to be applied," explains Prof. Ellis.

Smith College offers a program in engineering science, focusing on the underlying fundamental principles of engineering. The curriculum is more broad than it is within engineering programs elsewhere. When Smith College students become juniors and seniors, they can take electives.

Ellis stresses the importance of bringing innovative approaches to the classroom. Consider, for instance, the engineering class in which he arrived dressed up as a mountain climber. After hooking a rope to the ceiling, he projected snow-capped scenery on the wall and invited a volunteer to join him in ascent.

At the time, his continuum mechanics class studied the case of a hotel walkway that collapsed in 1981. In using the example of the mountain climber, Professor Ellis proceeded to discuss the materials and structures from the climber's vantage point, thus illustrating what went wrong while also infusing a measure of fun in the lesson.

Such novel approaches to teaching resulted in the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education acknowledging Prof. Ellis as one of the U.S. Professors of the Year.

"As faculty members, we have to learn from the research and apply it in our classroom," says Ellis. "When we have students really get involved in learning, they become more engaged and learn more."

In fact, Prof. Ellis would like to get students to think as experts do. Toward this goal, he encourages asking concept questions and the use of labs. He also stresses the use of video. In Smith College's Picker Engineering Program, students choose a topic that interests them. It could be the motion of a dancer or a subject from sports. They have to learn more about the chosen topic and make a video.

"The ultimate objective is for them to learn more about the topic and use the video medium," explains Ellis, citing the integral role of story-telling in the project.

Prof. Ellis suggests, however, that if the engineering world is really to begin attracting women, it will mean fundamentally changing how kindergarten to twelfth grade students view engineering. That is because these students typically see engineering in a context that does not appear relevant to their lives.

Prof. Glenn Ellis of Smith College works with students who instrumented a cane (barely visible in the photo) with strain gages. They instrumented the cane to verify calculated stresses produced by combined loading.

"Women are more interested in engineering when it is a topic they care about," says Prof. Ellis. "When you present the humanity of engineering, they become more interested."

In the overall mission to bring engineering to middle school learners, Smith College's Picker Engineering Program has formed a partnership with the Department of Education and the Office of Educational Outreach. Its focus is to use research-based approaches to create K-12 engineering curricula that are innovative in content and pedagogy and that engage all learners and develop learning communities for supporting the professional development of teachers in addressing science, technology, and engineering standards.

Prof. Ellis's outreach activities include teaching, teacher education, and creating a fiction book, tailored for middle school girls, that is integrated with engineering activities.

Louisiana Tech wins IEEE-USA video contest

IEEE student members Emile Frey and Ben Toler, both electrical engineering undergraduates at Louisiana Tech University, Ruston, La., won first place in a new video contest sponsored by IEEE-USA.

The contest challenged student members to create a 90-second video to be posted on YouTube, aimed at youngsters ages 11 to 13, illustrating how engineering is exciting and beneficial.

Frey and Toler's film did not reinforce the stereotype of engineers as straight technicians who wear pocket protectors. Rather, the film portrayed engineers as "normal people who want to change the world."

Frey and Toler will split a $2,500 prize that will go toward their tuition.-Joseph Hoff

Copyright Barks Publications Jun 2008

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