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Outreach Engineering aims to increase STEM education

Clayton Greenbaum teaching motors to kids at the Columbus Metro Library Livingston Branch Homework Help Center. Credit: Courtesy of Betty Lise Anderson

Clayton Greenbaum teaching motors to kids at the Columbus Metro Library Livingston Branch Homework Help Center. Credit: Courtesy of Betty Lise Anderson

Students in the United States ranked 27th in math and 20th in science, according to the most recent Program for International Student Assessment study in 2012. The study compares American students to counterparts in 33 other developed countries. The PISA ranking, and results of studies like it, has led to efforts around the country to educate young people about STEM fields.

An engineering outreach program at Ohio State is reaching K-12 students in Ohio by visiting Columbus-area schools, and occasionally some as far as Cincinnati, to teach students hands-on engineering projects in their science classes.

Betty Lise Anderson, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and the Engineering Outreach to K-12 program director, began visiting schools in 2008 when her department chair requested she start an engineering outreach program.

She said Engineering Outreach to K-12 has reached more than 90 schools and nearly 14,000 students.  She and her students have developed 20 different kid-friendly engineering projects to teach at the schools they visit.

Anderson said teachers call and ask her to visit during a certain class period and she tries to always say yes. Teachers often have a specific scientific principle that needs to be demonstrated, Anderson said, and she chooses a project that the kids can build to demonstrate that principle.    

One project involved building a paper speaker, which consisted of a paper funnel, some wire, magnets and an audio cable. She said the whole speaker cost less than a dollar, and so the kids could easily take it home.

“For kids from lower income places, it’s huge for them to make something, and they’re amazed that we let them keep it,” Anderson said.  

Anderson said she visits some schools where the students are not taught about engineering and do not have engineering role models around them.  

“I was at one school where the teachers told me, ‘Frankly, most of these young men are looking at one of two careers: professional football player or drug dealer, because that is all they know,’” Anderson said.

She said that she wants to show these kids that they have more possibilities.

Clayton Greenbaum, a fifth-year in electrical and computer engineering who volunteers with the program and teaches lessons at schools when Anderson is unable, said he understands what hardship is like.

“A big part of why I do outreach is because science really changed my life,” Greenbaum said. “I had a challenging childhood, and science really helped me process that as I got older, so I hope this program can help other youth who are in the same position.”   

Anderson said that her favorite part is when she gets to work with the students who say that they can’t complete a project because it’s too hard.

“It’s just so rewarding,” Anderson said. “It’s so much fun to see the lights come on when they finally get something to work when they thought they couldn’t.”

Adam Philpott, a science teacher at Graham Expeditionary Middle School of Columbus, has had Anderson visit his class twice.

Philpott said that through middle and high school there isn’t a big focus on engineering, so having actual engineers show students projects is highly valuable. This is especially important with girls, he said.

“There aren’t a lot of women in engineering, though there should be, and so this gives girls exposure to women in STEM fields that they don’t get from me,” Philpott said.  

Anderson said that she wants there to be more diversity in STEM fields, but she said she understands that it is sometimes difficult for women to be taken seriously in these fields.

“When I was young and I told my guidance counselor that I wanted to go into engineering, he said, ‘Don’t you think you should get a teaching certificate and have that in your back pocket just in case?’” Anderson said.  

However, Anderson said she believes that diversity will increase in engineering and it starts with OSU students getting involved and volunteering their time to teach K-12 students.   

“The students who volunteer say they get so much more out of it than what they put in and so they keep coming back because it does so much good,” Anderson said.

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The Engaged Scholars logo accompanies stories that feature and examine research and teaching partnerships formed between the Ohio State University and the community (local, state, national and global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources. These stories spring from a partnership with OSU’s Office of Outreach and Engagement. The Lantern retains sole editorial control over the selection, writing and editing of these stories.

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