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A University of Arizona course introduces high school students to engineering in a low-risk environment with a high school teacher they know.
With projects including robotics, solar ovens and catapults, high school students are learning to solve problems in a way that will improve people's lives.
"Engineering is all about helping people, and not everyone knows that as they come up through the school systems," said J. Jill Rogers, coordinator of Engineering 102 for High School at the university.
After starting with one school in 2008, the Engineering 102 for High School course has grown to 20 schools and 293 students this year, with more to come in 2012-13. Designed for high school upperclassmen who enroll in pre-calculus or higher-level math, this course earns them three units of college credit as well as high school credit at some high schools.
When students transition to college, they're shocked to find that instructors don't spoon-feed them information. Instead, teachers ask them to motivate themselves as they grapple with concepts and problems, said Zach Widbin, physics teacher and engineering course instructor at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix.
"My goal is to give them an experience that is similar to what they'll find in a college of engineering curriculum, so that before they get to school, they can decide at the end of the day, 'Does this energize me and do I want to learn more?' or at the end of the day, 'Do I just feel exhausted and don't really feel any gratification from what I've learned?'"
In the two-semester high school course, students do more projects in class than college students do. They also may be immersed to the different disciplines in the engineering field — such as electrical, mechanical, chemical and bioengineering — depending on the disciplines required for those projects, said Jim Baygents, associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Arizona College of Engineering.
The College of Engineering creates the core curriculum that includes catapult, solar oven and robotics projects, but the high school teachers choose other projects to work on. In training sessions throughout the year, the College of Engineering prepares math, physics and engineering teachers to cover the projects in the curriculum.
The teachers also receive training on Microsoft Excel, LabVIEW system design software or the SolidWorks 3D mechanical computer-aided design program software.
Through these projects, students practice working together to apply the math and science principles they've learned. They also fulfill particular objectives.
"Depending on your project choice, you can either promote the students' interest in engineering or you can turn them off," Baygents said. "So what we try to do is make sure that we have a spectrum of projects that students do. So they get a flavor for all kinds of different engineering disciplines and all the different ways that engineers have an impact on people's lives."
When the 14 boys in the Brophy College Preparatory engineering course hear about the solar oven project, they think there's no way the oven can get hot enough to cook food, Widbin said. They're used to science classes where the labs aren't that exciting and where their teachers say they won't actually see the results they're supposed to because of errors.
During the solar oven project, they went from being skeptical to being energized that a 12-by-12 inch oven chamber, which collects half a meter to a meter squared of sunlight, can cook pretty much anything. A student was floored because it cooked a steak.
"One of the groups actually set their own oven on fire because it got so hot," Widbin said. "They were really excited that their work of putting together the model and the complicated equations yielded a result which is not only interesting, but in real life it's pretty cool, it's pretty neat."
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