MechSE faculty, staff, students lead STEM outreach with IRISE
This spring, IRISE (the Illinois Partnership for Respecting the Identities of Students in Engineering) connected Illinois Engineering graduate students in the ME 598EO course with local ninth-graders from Centennial High School’s AVID program. The goal was to use engineering to provide a solution to a problem in our local community.
The students sought to address obstacles that athletes in the Illini Wheelchair Basketball Program encounter during training and competition, or just in everyday life. Not only did the grad students learn a lot about outreach, the high school students learned about what engineers do, and a few even discovered that they might like to become one.
Taught by MechSE assistant professor Elif Ertekin, University High School teacher Sharlene Denos, and MechSE Education Outreach Coordinator, Joe Muskin, the Sustainable Engineering Outreach course (ME 598) exposed 16 graduate students (plus two volunteers) to the benefits, challenges, and rewards of engineering educational outreach; made them aware of issues of power, privilege, and identity related to STEM education and outreach; and gave them the opportunity to put into practice what they learned with local high school students. Revamped from an IRISE ME598 course taught by Denos and Muskin several years ago, the course was funded through Ertekin’s NSF CAREER grant.
In addition to graduate students, IRISE also targeted K-12 students in Lindsay Aikman’s AVID classes at Centennial High School in Champaign. AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) is a global nonprofit organization whose mission is to “close the achievement gap by preparing all students for college readiness and success in a global society.”
To celebrate the achievements of Centennial’s IRISE Engineering Scholars, the IRISE 2017 Symposium was held at NCSA on May 9. A lunch reception and the students’ poster presentations were followed by a video highlighting IRISE’s program in 2017, a keynote by Illinois Wheelchair Basketball Coach Matt Buchi, and recognition of the scholars.
Key to IRISE’s outreach to the high school students were the graduate students, for whom Ertekin had high praise, calling them “amazing... really dedicated and really committed.”
While the grad students gave a lot through the program, the also gained a lot in return. For instance, Ertekin said she believes they discovered the importance of becoming engaged in their community.
“I think it’s really important for the graduate students to be a part of that outreach in ways that are really meaningful and impactful,” Ertekin said. “And I think that the grad students had the opportunity to be able to see that everybody in the community can be excited about STEM-related work. When you work together as a team on projects, and make complex engineering accessible to young students, everybody gets excited. And I think that’s been a very valuable lesson for the graduate students.”
Take ME598 scholar Elle Wroblewski, an Aerospace Engineering grad student. No rookie when it comes to outreach, she's heavily involved with the Illini Aerospace Outreach, which mostly works with elementary students. Wroblewski had two very specific goals in taking the course.
“This class was an opportunity to work with high schoolers, which is an age range we don’t normally reach, and learn about why outreach is so important as opposed to my preconceived notions as to why it’s important. So that’s been really valuable, getting to understand outreach and education from the perspective of educators, because I’m not; I’m an engineer. I don’t know anything about education.”
What did she learn in the course? “I learned a lot about culture,” she admitted, “and how that applies to education… like why it’s important for me to know history, and understand psychology, and understand a lot of stuff beyond engineering in order to teach engineering, and I think that’s been the biggest take-away.”
MechSE grad student Malia Kawamura, who has been involved with MechSE’s ENVISION grad student outreach group, shares why she took the class: “I really enjoy doing outreach, and I wanted to learn how I could do it better. I also learned that the personal connection and the relationships you build can lead to the largest impact,” she said.
Something else she learned? “Making sure that the type of outreach you’re doing is relevant to the populations you’re working with is very important.”
Kawamura also learned about how different social justice issues are related to engineering and education in general.
“Urban planning, and how that affects education, and undocumented immigrants, and race and racism, and how all those things factor in... the students you might be working with—that’s part of their lives. Knowing more about people holistically helps you do a better job connecting with them.”
She also learned that changing the way things are taught can have an impact.
“People can get into a deficit mindset thinking about achievement gap, but the focus should really be on how the outreach we’re doing and the education can better connect with those populations rather than trying to change the students to fit within what might be considered a standard classroom education.”
Ertekin said she believes that the opportunity helped the high school students learn what engineering really is.
“I believe that every one of those kids has an engineer inside, and whatever they choose to do in their lives, they’ll be very successful at. And I hope that this has opened some of their eyes to what it is that engineers actually do, because I think that can sometimes be mysterious to younger kids, and it’s really valuable to be able to demystify that and show them concretely, ‘Hey, this is the way that engineers have impact in the world,’ and then make them feel like they’re part of that process.”
Wroblewski said she thinks the high schoolers also learned that engineers are real people, just like them.
“I think that their biggest take-away has been seeing engineers, and understanding that it’s an option, and getting to engage with us as people. I feel like some kids, maybe they think that they have to be extra good at math. And I think it helps for them to meet us and to engage with us over the course of the semester, to really make it be more like, ‘Everybody can do it. You can do it.’ It makes it more personal, I guess.”
Kawamura reported how rewarding it was to see the students she was mentoring grow in confidence and learn that they could indeed do engineering.
“It was really fun watching them be hesitant to start, and then as soon as they started, they picked everything up so fast! It was so fun working with them and watching them learn so quickly. And I had to keep bringing in more challenging things, because the more challenging it was, the more engaged they were in learning new things.”
Aikman, Centennial’s 9th-grade AVID teacher, said she believes her students learned a lot about engineering through the program.
“You know, I think this has done a good job of demystifying the engineering field, and showing that it can be a lot more accessible than people realize. It’s really about designing a product and developing a solution to a problem that you see in the world and developing that solution.”
Aikman witnessed the program influence some of her students to seriously consider careers in engineering?
“I have a student who has all along said she wanted to go as an OBGYN, and now, through this, it has been revealed that she has an intuition for programming. So we’re going to try to get her into summer programming camp on the engineering campus. I have other students who have never considered engineering at all, and are now attending engineering summer camps for a week in the summer.”
One of her students for whom the experience had a significant impact was freshman Khayriyah Mitchell.
“Because I’m a freshman, AVID gives me an earlier view of college, and how college works, and I appreciate that. And the IRISE program opened me up to engineering and gave me a better understanding of what engineering is. I didn’t really see myself as an engineer, but I actually do now,” said Mitchell.
In fact, Khayriyah plans to go to two camps this summer—including MechSE’s GBAM camp for high school girls.
“Building our apps, making our posters, meeting new people on campus gave me a better look on how college works,” she said, “and it excites me to actually be an engineer!”