Activity and Engagement-Keys in Connecting Engineering with Secondary School Students

Article excerpt

1 INTRODUCTION

The proportion of year 12 students studying appropriate enabling subjects in mathematics and science has continued to decline at the same time that skill shortages in engineering have emerged. Students often comment that study in these areas is based solely on facts and is mostly irrelevant to the real world. Engineering is an exceptional context in which to showcase the relevance of their studies to real examples. It is imperative that secondary school students not only be well informed about career options available within the engineering disciplines, but they also see the links between engineering and these enabling subjects before making their subject choices in the senior years (Downing, 2006). Activity-based experiences leading to increased student engagement are seen as key factors in attaining these goals. Experiential learning activities run by final-year undergraduate engineering students reinforces the connection between classroom theory and real-world engineering, and demonstrates the importance of studying science and mathematics.

One of the major difficulties inspiring students about careers in engineering is that their main source of information, their teachers, are usually not much better informed than the students themselves (Millican et al, 2005). A review of science, engineering and technology in Australia suggested that new ways of making science and engineering subjects more appealing to students needs to be developed with partners outside the school system, and that these partnerships could also provide students with valuable insight into science and engineering careers (Batterham, 2000). The SQUEAK program aims to help fill this gap, by offering contextual experiences within the classroom related to theory, along with experiencing engineering in fun and interesting environments. It also supports teachers by using problem solving activities that reduce the separation between abstraction of theory and experimentation. Feedback from teachers, students and engineering students involved in the program are included in the relevant sections of the paper to highlight points and add to the overall performance measure analysis.

The SQUEAK program was initiated as a result of declining tertiary engineering enrolments in the late 1990s and anecdotal evidence suggested that students did not chose engineering simply because they did not know much about the profession. Surveys of secondary schools students over the past four years has shown that this is still the case, with many students identifying engineers main responsibilities as building things and driving trains. To support this, Cunningham et al (2005), in a study in Boston on 504 students, concluded that "though we all are surrounded by the products of engineering in our everyday lives, students and the general public don't understand what engineers do". A study commissioned by the Engineering and Technology Board (UK) of 1011 year nine students found that students lacked understanding about careers in engineering and science. In Australia, a study by Macquarie University (2006) of over 1300 secondary school students identified comparable findings.

2 ENGAGEMENT

There are many programs aimed at developing an awareness of what engineers do and addressing the declining engineering numbers both in Australia and in the US. These programs generally fit into the following categories: competitions, summer schools, speaker programs, site visits, career advisers and teacher resources. Some examples of these include Project Lead the Way (PLTW), which is a hands-on, contextual curriculum that uses an interdisciplinary approach based on national state and local science, technology, engineering and maths standards at Purdue University. Authentic Teaching Alliance (ATA) is a National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsored program in which University of Oklahoma fellows (undergraduates) from engineering and education disciplines team with school teachers to design, implement and assess authentic, inquiry-based activities to teach secondary science and mathematics. …