Standing before more than 200 high school juniors in an auditorium one sunny afternoon in late May at Masconomet Regional High School in Topsfield, four Boston University College of Engineering undergraduates co-facilitated a game show, robot demos and a slideshow highlighting the impact of engineering on critical societal problems and exciting career opportunities for 21st century engineers. As the hour-long, interactive event came to a close, they fielded questions for more than 20 minutes, leaving the teenagers—and their teachers—hungry for more.
“The slides gave the students an idea of the broad range of projects engineer work on, and that was reinforced nicely by the student speakers,” Masconomet High physics/engineering teacher David Kurtz commented afterwards. “Many of our students envision engineers as nerds, but the BU students presented themselves very well and helped to dispel this notion.”
The four BU students are among the College of Engineering’s first 17 Technology Innovation Scholars (TIS), high-performing undergraduates charged to share their passion for innovation and engineering with K-12 students in Greater Boston and in their hometowns. Since January, the TIS and a handful of other College of Engineering undergraduates—collectively known as the College’s “Inspiration Ambassadors”—have introduced more than 450 New England high school and middle school students to the joys and challenges of engineering, serving as mentors to robotics teams and facilitators of interactive presentations and design challenges.
“Our Inspiration Ambassadors are engaging students in hands-on activities and giving them a big picture of what engineers do in solving society’s grand challenges in energy, healthcare and other areas—all while sharing an infectious enthusiasm for engineering,” said Gretchen Fougere, the College’s assistant dean of Outreach and Diversity, who is directing the outreach effort. “These exchanges bring engineering concepts to life while opening the students to new opportunities.”
Three Outreach Channels
Fifteen Inspiration Ambassadors (all TIS) began their outreach work by mentoring FIRST® robotics teams at seven local high schools. Logging eight hours each week from January through early April, they shared their skills in programming, CAD and electronics design as well as their passion for innovation and engineering with about 170 students. As the Inspiration Ambassadors helped these FIRST teams prepare for and win awards at the FIRST® Regional Competition at BU in April, they cultivated fruitful working relationships with their younger counterparts.
Technology Innovation Scholar Chas Manning (MFG’12) helped mentor the John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science robotics team in Roxbury. “A student and I spent one weekend designing, prototyping and producing the deployment mechanism,” said Manning. ”Seeing the excitement in her face as an abstract idea she had came into the physical world was great. She got to see the way in which engineering solves problems.”
Incorporating lessons from their mentoring experience, Inspiration Ambassadors went on to host or visit other New England schools, sharing their excitement about engineering and their own career plans with nearly 300 students. During these meetings, they co-facilitated interactive sessions on how engineering solves problems in our daily lives, and helped K-12 students apply what they learned in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses in hands-on design challenges.
In one design challenge based on an activity from the WGBH series Design Squad Nation, teams of ninth grade physics students from Boston Collegiate Charter High School received a “spy kit” consisting of tools such as scissors and a hole punch and materials such as straws, paper cups and masking tape. Their task was to design a vehicle that could transport a “top-secret package” (a.k.a. ping pong ball) down a zip-line in less than four seconds. Working under these constraints and guided through the design process by Inspiration Ambassadors, the students used their creativity and knowledge of balancing forces and friction to engineer a solution.
As they continue to reach additional K-12 students, the Inspiration Ambassadors are also helping to develop curriculum modules, called “Innovations in a Box,” that focus on engineering grand challenges. Designed to meet Massachusetts educational standards in STEM, these modules highlight technologies that sparked Ambassadors’ interest in engineering or reflect areas of expertise at the College of Engineering such as Smart Lighting, global health and nanotechnology. Four teachers in schools visited by Inspiration Ambassadors have expressed interest in integrating these modules into their curricula.
By immersing K-12 students in authentic engineering experiences, illustrating how engineers move society forward, and sharing their own aspirations to become rocket scientists, math educators, designers of jet engines, prosthetics and computers, and more, the Inspiration Ambassadors hope to boost STEM literacy and pave the way for the next generation of engineers.
“Boston needs this on-the-ground, regular mentoring and outreach so more students understand why math and science are important and appreciate the power and impact engineers have on society,” said Fougere. “If engineering is seen as the ‘new cool,’ then placing well-rounded engineering students, such as the Inspiration Ambassadors, in schools and on FIRST® teams is a great way to inspire students to consider STEM careers.”