The excitement was palpable as 18 Boston-area middle- and high-school math educators created their first mobile game app. Working in teams guided by 16 undergraduates in the College of Engineering’s Technology Innovation Scholars Program (TISP), the educators tried their hands at both front- and back-end computer development during the two-hour workshop.
“I didn’t know that you could connect your own phone to a computer and make an app for yourself,” commented Jillian Cohen, SED’ 15, engineer and math educator at Waltham high school.
“The lesson we did today was very accessible, so we can show students that they can do it,” said Laura Giberson, SED ’13, math educator at Cristo Rey high school in Dorchester.
The workshop – a collaboration of ENG and the School of Education, and supported by the National Science Foundation – marked the latest evolution in TISP, the young and rapidly growing program aimed at filling the pipeline with tomorrow’s engineers. For the past four years, TISP has sent Inspiration Ambassadors – talented and trained ENG undergraduates – into schools across Massachusetts and the nation to show young students the power of an engineering career. Now the program is reaching out to teachers, giving them ideas on how to make this part of their classes, thereby potentially multiplying the program’s power by orders of magnitude.
“We are partnering with teachers to connect their students to relatable role models and future workforce needs,” said ENG Associate Dean for Outreach & Diversity Gretchen Fougere, who directs TISP. “We want educators to promote computer literacy and lead their students to many exciting careers, in everything from big data to robotics to gaming and smart devices for the Internet of Things. Making math connections to engineering content and careers, can open up their eyes to a world of opportunities and complement the efforts of these educators who are teaching in high-need schools.”
Inspiration Ambassador Carlton Duffett (CE ‘16) designed the workshop for use with students in secondary math and science classrooms. The teachers learned how to turn a brain teaser puzzle into a mobile phone app.
“My goal was to expose the teachers to unfamiliar and often intimidating technology yet show them how accessible the material truly is,” said Carlton. “We showed the teachers that even without prior experience coding or programming they can create and interact with the technologies that their students use every day. I hope that this activity will inspire students to pursue math and engineering and give them the confidence to work in this cutting edge field.”
Assistant Professor Leslie Dietiker (SED), who teaches math education and is one of the NSF co-principal investigators, lauded the value of the session for everyone in the room, saying it was “an opportunity for prospective math teachers to work alongside engineering students and allowed the future teachers to engage in problem solving in a new setting. It also enabled the engineering students to experience the role of teaching math to our next generation of engineers.”
The 18 teachers were all beneficiaries of Prof. Suzanne Chapin’s (SED) NSF Noyce Scholar projects and work in high-needs schools, such as Boston, Framingham, Lawrence, Malden and Waltham. In addition to showing the teachers how accessible engineering can be, the Inspiration Ambassadors helped clarify the connection between a young student’s pursuit of math and potential for rewarding careers in the STEM fields. Several Inspiration Ambassadors presented career and math-content connections for the educators, providing first-hand insight into their own motivation to pursue engineering majors. They gave the teachers fresh ideas about using technology to introduce problem-solving skills, career awareness and the relevance of mathematics class work to technologies encountered in daily life.
“Students need to see not only how math is pervasive in all of their daily interests, but they must also be convinced that they too can develop the skills necessary to create many of the technologies they enjoy themselves,” said Linda Nguyen, ENG’11 and math and science educator at City on a Hill Charter school in Roxbury.
Now in its fourth year, TISP’s Inspiration Ambassadors have been sharing their experiences and presenting fun and engaging design challenges to middle- and high-school students directly, helping them see what engineers do to improve society. To date, TISP Inspiration Ambassadors have reached more than 13,000 K-12 students in 119 schools and in 23 states. By teaching the teachers, TISP can ensure that the program’s mission endures in these schools long after their visits end.
Some of the Inspiration Ambassadors will work as engineers upon graduation, while others are enrolled in BU’s STEM Educator Engineer Program (STEEP), which allows students to earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s degree in teaching before beginning careers in secondary math and science education.
Driving all of these programs is a deeper goal: creating communities of secondary students and their educators and trained engineers. The idea, Fougere said, is to pass technical skills, knowledge and passion from current engineering students and professionals to these young people who may, in turn, become the next generation of engineers. To this end, beyond showing students the importance and relevance of their classroom lessons, the BU workshops and programs address the constant demand for a sustained and robust engineering workforce.
“We’re trying to help teachers connect kids who love math with the workforce needs of the future,” said Fougere. “When an eighth grader sees that computer literacy can lead to so many exciting careers and we help excite them to learn math, new worlds of possibility arise and everybody wins. Kids could create the next Angry Birds®, not just play these fun games.”