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Ohio State receives grant to broaden student interest in STEM

Students experiment in Koffolt Lab, home to the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry Research, as well as the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Credit: Casey Cascaldo | Photo Editor

Ohio State University, in collaboration with Ohio Northern University and Kansas high school Olathe Northwest, has received a grant from the National Science Foundation to broaden high school students’ interest in science, technology, engineering and math pathways.

The project, called “Promoting Engineering Problem Framing Skill Development in High School Science and Engineering Courses,” was designed and submitted by principal investigator and assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Ohio Northern Blake Hylton and Ohio Northern faculty member Todd France, along with Patrick Herak of Ohio State’s engineering education department and Bruce Wellman from Olathe Northwest.

The group hopes to provide cross-curricular activities so that students in biology, chemistry and physics classes can all take part.

“There are clear, clear connections with all those three sciences and engineering that can be kind of wrapped up into [one] scenario,” said France, co-principal investigator and assistant professor of engineering education at Ohio Northern.

Ohio State will receive $121,957 from the three-year NSF grant out of a total $450,000, according to a College of Engineering news release, with Ohio State’s role being to handle data analysis of the project results. The results will be collected through surveys and interviews with participating students and teachers.

The funding from the grant supports a project to design and incorporate engineering-based activities into core high school curriculums, such as biology, chemistry and physics, while providing structure for teachers on how to support and offer resources to students with STEM interest.

Four activities are planned for the year, France said. Each activity will target different aspects of the engineering design process — specifically, the first few steps.

France said a common difficulty is students jumping in the design and prototyping phase without considering who the design is going to impact.

“We want these students as potentially future engineers to be creative, to think critically about different problems where there’s no correct answer,” France said. “There can be many different types of design solutions that all can be high quality.”

Herak, co-principal investigator, will lead the data analytics portion of the project, along with a graduate research assistant.

Herak said he will be analyzing two things: quantitative and qualitative data.

“The quantitative data might be like, ‘Oh, here’s how students did on tests with special modules, and here’s how they did without it,’” Herak said. “You have to go through this paragraph of information and … read through enough of it to know, like, what are some of the keywords that keep popping up?”

Once the keywords are detected, Herak said they can then recognize if the results from student and teacher feedback are positive or negative and generalize this feedback to encourage larger pilot groups to participate in future projects.

“Usually the first group of people that do it are the most enthusiastic about doing it,” Herak said. “Then other people might be like, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea, but I want to see how it works before I try it.’”

Project funding began Aug. 1 and is sourced by the Discovery Research in PreK-12 program — part of the NSF — which seeks to enhance the learning and teaching of STEM approaches.

Hylton said the project is currently a three-year project and in a phase where the group is trying to see what works.

“If we start getting promising results, then the hope would be to go on and apply for a follow-on grant that could be as much as a five-year project to implement our activities more broadly,” Hylton said.

The engineering activities are rooted in the 12 Next Generation Science Standards, which are content standards that set expectations for what students should know and be able to do. The project also sets expectations for the teachers to become more familiar with different disciplines of engineering and further engage students with the engineering field, France said.

“It’s really a pilot project to see how impactful it can be and what the student takeaways and feedback are to make it sustainable,” France said. “We need to have teachers buy into it for us because it just can’t be some far away institution telling them what to do, year after year. But hopefully the teachers find value in it and then they adopt it for their own classroom practices.”

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