Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Beyond Blackboards Uses Engineering Design and Robotics to Improve Math and Science Skills

The following is a recent write up of a grant I have at The University of Texas at Austin. It was recently published on the College's website. The PI on this grant is my wonderful colleague Rich Crawford from the College of Engineering and fellow co-PI is Chandra Muller from Sociology. Also, a great project staff including Christina White, Sheila Reynolds and Austin Tally, undergraduate assistants, fantastic teachers and incredibly helpful district administrators. Really a great synergy. I'm honored to be part of this wonderful project. 

Working with The University of Texas at Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering, area school districts, and members of the education industry, the College of Education is helping implement Beyond Blackboards, a program that introduces middle school students to engineering design. Beyond Blackboards is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) is based on the highly successful Design Technology and Engineering for America’s Children (DTEACh) engineering outreach program. DTEACh and Beyond Blackboards emphasize hands-on experience with technology and the use of design challenges and robotics to create a context for math and science learning. 

 “Most students don’t have an entirely accurate perception of what it means to be an engineer and what engineering involves,” said Dr. Anthony Petrosino, associate professor in the College of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction and co-principal investigator for the NSF grant. “Most adults don’t either, for that matter. One of the strengths of Beyond Blackboards is that it’s designed to educate not only the middle school students, but also teachers, school administrators and parents, or other caregivers, regarding the breadth of education and career opportunities available to someone who’s developed strong math and science skills. Most people are surprised – they possess a rather narrow definition of ‘engineer.’” 

 Realizing that not all students will, or should, become engineers, Beyond Blackboards focuses on using engineering-based challenges and projects to build students’ skills in analysis, problem-solving, negotiation, creativity, tolerance for ambiguity and understanding of systems thinking. Any or all of these skills can help students successfully pursue university degrees and lucrative career paths in any number of fields. The Ojeda Middle School "Engin Ears" robotics team participating in a Beyond Blackboards robotics competition. According to Dr. Anthony Petrosino, middle school is a critical decision-making time for students and Beyond Blackboards focuses on supporting and educating those individuals who are in a position to positively influence students when it comes to the development of math, science and technology skills. “Unfortunately, many K-12 engineering programs have been modeled after university engineering programs, which means that students don’t get introduced to the design element of engineering,” said Petrosino. “An art student, for example, who shows design promise would never know that there was a niche for her in engineering and most teachers would not know that this talented student could flourish in an engineering class.” 

 Historically underserved student populations are particularly at risk for falling through the cracks, with the dropout rate for Hispanics currently standing at around 40 percent. Many of these students may not perform well on tests but can possess skill sets that allow them to do well in engineering design. The confidence and expertise gained in engineering design can be a launching point for understanding core math and science subject material. To encourage more students to enter science, math, engineering and technology (STEM) fields, Beyond Blackboards is taking a four-pronged approach that includes research-based materials and training for students, teachers, school administrators and parents. Students are engaged in inquiry-based, open-ended, hands-on learning activities and introduced to a varied selection of STEM college options and careers during after-school programs, such as robotics clubs, as well as in intensive summer camps. 

 Teachers are trained to lead out-of-school robotics programs, receiving engineering professional development that increases their content knowledge and the level of comfort with which they employ technology in their classrooms. Teachers are educated in how to introduce students to engineering, using techniques such as drawing students’ attention to everyday examples of engineering topics, thereby placing abstract engineering concepts into familiar contexts. The teachers also learn how to generate interactive discussions about science and math concepts underlying engineering subject areas; set up exploratory labs for the students; present open-ended design problems in class; and help students become adept at communicating technical information, such as their engineering design solutions. Beyond Blackboards builds support from school counselors and administrators by offering them professional development that include education on STEM career opportunities and field trips to area businesses and organizations that offer a broad array of jobs in STEM fields. 

The education professionals also can avail themselves of presentations, discussions and hands-on activities that explain and illustrate students’ learning experiences. Teachers outside math and science – career instructors and art teachers, for example – have access to this training as well. And finally, the program also reaches out to parents and caregivers, targeting historically under-represented groups in order to build understanding about the options open to students who have math and science skills. Among other things, Beyond Blackboards shares STEM college and career awareness activities with parents of children who are in the robotics after-school clubs or summer camps. 

 At The University of Texas at Austin, Beyond Blackboards engages engineering and UTeach students to serve as mentors for middle school students in the program. “Support from multiple sources increases the likelihood of success,” said Petrosino. “Corporate partners like DTEACh are very involved as well as Skillpoint Alliance, a Central Texas education and workforce agency, and members of communities around the participating schools. “Research points to the fact that middle school is a critical decision-making time for students and Beyond Blackboards focuses on those individuals who are in a position to positively influence students. Really focusing on historically underserved groups, we’re tapping into a large, promising future workforce – this is a great opportunity to increase the number of individuals who have STEM skills.” 

 —Kay Randall, Office of the Vice President for Public Affairs, 512-232-3910