In the push to engage more students in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields, engineering sometimes is overlooked or neglected, particularly in the K-12 system where it’s not commonly taught.
Norwich University’s STEM Institute is addressing that challenge by training K-12 teachers in how to integrate engineering concepts into their classrooms.
For three years running, the institute has brought math, science and technology teachers to the Norwich campus for a week in June through a grant from the Math-Science Partnership of the US Department of Education.
“These teachers can now go into their classroom and with confidence teach their students about engineering,” says Michael Prairie, associate professor and chair of the Norwich Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “We show teachers how to incorporate [engineering] into their lessons, so they can take what used to be a science project and turn it into an engineering project…where you’re actually designing something.”
Taught by Norwich faculty, this year’s summer STEM Institute emphasized the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) that have been adopted by many states, including Vermont. The course theme was “Engineering Content in the NGSS World.”
Reflecting Norwich University’s focus on experiential learning, participating teachers learned through hands-on application as they worked on two projects. One involved designing a rain water system to reduce water consumption on campus grounds. The second task was to develop water wheel turbines in an energy conversion plan.
“You’re teaching them a process for problem-solving, because that’s essentially what engineering is, solving problems,” Prairie says. “The process of solving problems translates to any field of study.”
Norwich professors continue to work with teachers from the summer course. Teachers develop a project with their classes based on what they learned at the institute and give a presentation at a follow-up session in the fall.
The institute has included collaborations with Williamstown Middle/High School, the Southwest Vermont Curriculum Coordinators Collaborative, and Castleton University. Fourty-nine teachers at elementary, middle, and high schools have participated, and they have in turn exposed thousands of Vermont students to engineering.
The institute’s indirect benefits include a potential pipeline of prospective Norwich students and faculty outreach.
“We’re doing outreach to the people who may not come here or go into engineering, but we’re giving them those extra problem-solving skills,” Prairie says.
He adds that the STEM Institute is “about reaching out and improving our communities. This is a way to not only launch competent engineering in society but to help build our communities.”