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Engineering gains a younger following

High schools offer hands-on classes


By Tracy Jan, Globe Staff | October 15, 2005


Designing models of buildings and bridges could soon become as common as dissecting frogs in high school science classes.


About a third of the state's 316 high schools now offer an engineering course to woo more students into science and math, prepare them to pass a new state MCAS science test, and funnel them into engineering careers. Most, about 80 of them, started the courses this fall as a step toward making engineering a fourth high school science class, along with biology, chemistry, and physics. The classes typically combine elements of civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering.


Kids spend a month learning how volcanoes work and no time learning how cars work. How often do you find yourself in a volcano versus a car?" said Ioannis Miaoulis, director and president of the Museum of Science, which developed the engineering program most frequently taught in Massachusetts high schools.


Responding to a national need for more engineers, Massachusetts is moving faster than other states to bring engineering into primary and secondary schools. It was the first state to recommend that engineering be taught at all grade levels and is the only state to have an engineering exam as part of statewide testing, Miaoulis said. Some high school students now take the engineering and technology MCAS exam, though it doesn't yet count toward graduation. Starting with the class of 2010, students will have to pass a science test to graduate and can pick a test in one of four subjects, including engineering.


The engineering curriculums vary by school in the classes, which typically are offered as electives rather than a requirement. In most Bay State schools, which are using the Museum of Science program, students work in groups to develop a product that solves a problem, as professional engineers do. They might design a deck that can support a hot tub or build a steam-powered boat. The engineering courses fuse elements of math, science, business, civics, even art.


But some engineers worry that high school engineering courses are too simplistic and don't force students to know calculus or use more than basic principles of physics and chemistry.


It's fine to give people exposure to circuitry and design, but if you don't have the rigorous math around it, it doesn't prepare students to go in and succeed as engineering majors" in college, said Eric Iversen of the American Society for Engineering Education.


The accessibility of the engineering courses, however, is exactly what appeals to most students.


Engineering has hooked students with a variety of interests, including those who never thought they had an aptitude for math and science. Students say they are drawn to the subject because it is practical, involves hands-on projects with their classmates, and applies to their daily lives. In some classes, they are learning how their cellphones, iPods, and stereo speakers work. Some students get to design robots, toy cars, and remote-controlled submarines, while others have crafted more everyday items, such as a mug that can keep coffee hot longer.


They learn basic as well as sophisticated skills that an engineer would need, including computer-aided drafting, measurement, and problem-solving.


Now I'm actually thinking about doing engineering as a career," said Dan Acuna, a senior at Boston Arts Academy, an arts-focused public high school that steers its seniors into an engineering class.


The school is one of eight Boston high schools, including an alternative school and a math- and science-focused exam school, that added engineering classes this or last school year.


Acuna, who plays the piano and saxophone, had planned on becoming a dentist until this fall, when engineering appeared on his class schedule. He now plans to major in engineering next year in college.


It's more hands-on stuff. You can actually build things," said Acuna, who used to think science was boring. The other science classes are more about taking notes and research. I actually look forward to this class every day."


Yesterday, as the culmination of a monthlong project, Acuna and his classmates presented ad campaigns for organizers, ranging from tiny pill organizers to ones for closets they designed. His group made a wooden model of a walk-in closet, which included shelves, rods, a shoe rack, and a light fixture they connected to a battery with wires and clamps. The organizer, he pitched to classmates, would help students who wake up late get dressed faster in the morning.


At Boston Arts Academy and most other schools, students take engineering as an elective. But at Beverly High School, students can take engineering as an alternative to biology and fulfill a graduation requirement for science. About a third of its sophomores chose engineering this year, principal Carla Scuzzarella said.


High school engineering teachers in Belmont and Cambridge are fighting to make engineering count as a science requirement for graduation. They want it to supplement, not supplant, the natural sciences.


In the college environment, engineering is up there with the other sciences, and it should have the same standing at the high school level," said the Museum of Science's Miaoulis, who is a former dean of engineering at Tufts University. He had pushed the state to include engineering in its list of subjects.


Abington High School this year began requiring all freshmen to take a semester-long engineering and technology class, in addition to physical science.


Worried about how competitive US students will be in the world, high school administrators in Brookline and Springfield plan to start engineering classes for upperclassmen next fall.


China and India graduate three times as many engineering majors as the United States, said Tom Magnanti, engineering dean at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


In Massachusetts, according to the state's curriculum guidelines, teachers should begin teaching engineering concepts, such as how ramps, wheels, and pulleys work, in the earliest elementary grades.


The challenge now, according to the American Society for Engineering Education, is finding qualified engineering teachers. Some schools ask science teachers to teach engineering; and others hire engineers who have never been teachers or retrain former shop teachers.


We need to really inspire our young people in terms of basic math and science," Magnanti said. We need to have glamorous people in television doing engineering."


Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.

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