Igniting a fire: Educating a new wave of engineers
Engineering is one of the four STEM pillars, and it’s gaining stature in our technological world as an essential competency for personal and societal advance. Yet many youth are not acquainted with the discipline, finding it remote and perhaps even daunting in the abstract. Our task in engineering education is to bridge that gap — to find a way to show students how relevant engineering is to their daily lives and pursuits, how interesting and gratifying the field is, and how critical it is to solving the great challenges that face the world today.
The word “engineering” is derived from the Latin words ingenium and ingeniare, and has to do with cleverness and devising things (think “ingenious”). It would be hard to imagine life as we know it without the myriad solutions humans have devised to survive and thrive in the world, such as the wheel. Today, engineering is merging with disciplines like science, medicine, art, business and other fields to develop solutions to such pressing challenges as curing disease; rolling back climate change; and creating smart, sustainable infrastructures for our cities.
In my research into expanding participation in engineering, I take the view that broadening the contexts of engineering activities can enable more students to connect their interests to our discipline. When engaging in engineering activities, we try to provide students with broad themes focused on helping people, animals, the environment and more. This allows students to apply their knowledge and interests — in areas like the arts, sports, music, reading, writing, and making — through the engineering design process to solve real problems.
For example, we’re creating a curriculum for the Purdue Engineering Initiative in Cislunar Space (the space between the Earth and the moon). The initiative involves things like an incubator and collaborative research to advance access to space, identify and use space resources, and conceive an infrastructure for space development and human life on the moon.
We see an opportunity here for broadening student interest in engineering. Rather than focusing solely on rockets or rovers — both of which can be engaging to some students — we are seeking wider themes that introduce the complexities of a new way of living off Earth.
This summer, we tested an activity with more than 40 students via a virtual camp. Students learned about Olympic sports (the camp was intended to coincide with the 2020 Summer Olympics), as well as gravity and basic physics principles. The students investigated how those sports might look and operate differently on the moon, and then designed new rules, equipment and gear that would make the Olympic results the same on the moon and Earth.
Our overall goals are for students to think about human-centered problems and choose what they want to do, and then, as they develop solutions, for us to engage them in engineering and making activities that involve art, creativity, and technical know-how.
Morgan Hynes, PhD
Associate Professor, Engineering Education
College of Engineering, Purdue University
INSPIRE Research Institute for Pre-College Engineering Education Research