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Future Engineers Mix Math, Science, Spaghetti

Students working togetherOne day the students focused on building a circuit board that can communicate with a robot. Another day students measured the distance between buildings. And other days, they glued spaghetti together to make a bridge, hopefully strong enough to sustain at least 100 pounds.

Welcome to Engineering Innovation, a month-long summer program for high school students. Engineering Innovation is a condensed version of a semester-long Johns Hopkins University engineering course. What college students do in a semester, high school students do in a grueling four weeks.

The course has been offered at Johns Hopkins Montgomery County Campus since the course’s inception.  The program is offered through the Whiting School of Engineer’s Center for Educational Outreach, which was created in 2003 to encourage students to pursue higher education in science, technology, engineering and math.

This summer, approximately 45 students, mostly rising seniors, took the class in Montgomery County. The course is also offered in Baltimore, Frederick, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania and California.

Students attending the course in Montgomery County hailed from Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. – and even New York and Kansas.Students working on project

High school students take an array of science and math classes, but few high schools offer engineering classes. That’s where Engineering Innovation comes in. The idea is to give high school students a broad, survey overview of engineering so they can decide whether they want to major in it in college. The idea is also to provide an overview of the different fields within engineering, such as robotics, mechanical engineering, civil engineering, electrical engineering, chemical engineering and how each is applied outside the classroom.

The days are half lecture, half lab. Students in the course said they really appreciate the hands-on components, which gave them a chance to see the practical application of the formulas and concepts they learned in their high school classes.

“The labs here are made to be really detailed,” said Sunny Tunnala, 16, of Overland Park, Kansas. “You don’t get that in school sometimes. It goes beyond what you learn in the high school environment.”

To qualify for the program, students need to have taken algebra II, trigonometry and a lab science. During the month-long summer class, students take quizzes, do lab reports, work together on group projects and take a final exam. The highlight of the program is the spaghetti bridge project, where students make bridges out of nothing more than spaghetti and epoxy glue.

Students who earn an A or B in the class receive three Johns Hopkins credits.

“I heard this looks really good on college applications,” said Sunny, who wants to study nuclear engineering.

Where does he want to go to college? “I want to go to MIT, but doesn’t everybody?”

Actually, many of the students in Engineering Innovation said they don’t yet have their heart set on a particular college but they seriously are considering careers in engineering.

Mehrzad Van Gieson, 17, a senior at Thomas Wootton High School, said he wants to pursue a career in engineering but before participating in Engineering Innovation, he only had a vague idea of what that would entail.

“The one thing I knew about engineering is it’s a combination of science and mathematics, my two strong suits,” Mehrzad said. “It’s helped me get a feel of different types of engineering.” He said civil engineering doesn’t interest him but mechanical or electrical engineering sound intriguing.

For Somya Srivastava, Engineering Innovation could launch her career into outer space. The 17-year-old from Long Island is a big fan of Johns Hopkins, having twice participated in Center for Talented Youth programs. She’s also a big fan of space and is interested in aeronautical engineering. Engineering Innovation has challenged her.

“I thought I knew physics. I thought I knew math. But I didn’t,” Somya said. “They taught us how to apply it to real stuff. You’re going to learn a lot. It’s not going to be easy. You get the grasp of it. I would never learn this in school.”

High school, she said, is too much teaching to the test. Engineering Innovation was more practical, she said.

That’s the point, said Karen Borgsmiller, director of Engineering Innovation. Hands-on experiences are critical, she said.

Who is the ideal student?

Students outside building“Students who are curious,” Borgsmiller said. “Students who are self-motivated. Students who like science and math but really aren’t sure what they want to do with it.”

And the perfect students, she said, are students that have a “stick-to-it-ness” personality, who will keep trying to figure out why something didn’t work quite right rather than looking it up on Google.

At Johns Hopkins Montgomery County, the class is co-taught by Fred Katiraie and Muhammad Kehnemouyi, professors at Montgomery College.

“We need more engineers,” Katiraie said. “I sincerely hope to spark an interest.”


Student shows off project

And the winners were...

Marissa Diehl, 16; Lauren Olson, 16; and Marjorie Buss, 17. The all-female team broke a Montgomery County Campus record when their spaghetti bridge held 35kg.







Engineering Innovation Statistics
- source: WhitingSchool of Engineering

Immediate Results

In 2012, Engineering Innovation was offered at 10 sites in Maryland, Washington, DC, Pennsylvania and California reaching 273 students in 16 sections. The post-survey results from the 2012 participants indicate that students gained experience in several engineering related skills and abilities including - giving examples of non-dimensional variables, using Boolean logic; wiring a circuit board, and converting logic statements into truth tables.

94% said the course challenged them in ways they had not experienced before.
81% said the course was worthwhile. 
78% said the course helped them understand the various fields of engineering. 
74% said the course helped them decide if engineering is the right career for them. 
83% said the course improved their problem solving skills.

Long Term Impact

Of Engineering Innovation alumni, 60 percent have decided to become an engineer and 21 percent have decided to pursue a career in the sciences

90% said they’d recommend the course to anyone interested in engineering or science.
89% said the course taught them how math and science apply to real world problems.
88% said the course helped them understand what engineers do and how they think.
81% said the course taught them how to learn on their own.

Of the 87 Engineering Innovation alumni who were enrolled in college at the time of the alumni survey:

61% said the course helped them decide to whether or not to choose engineering as a major.
59% said they knew what to expect in college as a result of the course.
56% said they chose a more challenging college as a result of the course.



CATEGORY: Academics, K-12 Outreach