U.Va. Building Free, Online Environment to Introduce Middle School Students to Engineering

September 14, 2011 — Skyscrapers – and windmills to power them.

That's what middle school students will soon be designing as part of their math curriculum, thanks to the work of faculty at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education. They have received a grant to build a free, online environment, called WISEngineering, to get students excited about engineering.

WISEngineering will guide students through engineering design projects that focus on math concepts. One project will help students learn about surface area and volume by designing a skyscraper. Another project will help them learn about expressions and equations by designing windmills to power their skyscraper. 

Using WISEngineering design challenges, students will collaborate as they brainstorm ideas, test their solutions and critique each others' designs. Using a 3-D printer or digital fabricator, students then construct actual models of their designs. 

"Working with both physical and virtual models help students refine their mathematical understanding," explained Jennifer Chiu, an assistant professor at the Curry School who is heading up the program. "For example, when students put a roof on their building, they realize that their surface area calculations were flawed."

As they work on their designs, students will be asked to refine, critique and retest them. At the end of the projects, students will create design portfolios that emphasize the design process as well as their particular design solution. The online environment also will offer teachers tools to monitor, give feedback and assess their students' work. 

Working in pairs, students will log in to WISEngineering and begin or continue a project at their own pace. Each project will be explored using one- to two-week online curricular modules. Through the curriculum that guides each project, students will learn about relevant science, technology, engineering and math – or STEM – concepts, and apply their understanding of these concepts to real-life contexts.

"Introducing engineering design into secondary classrooms has the potential to help students understand STEM concepts by engaging students in projects that emphasize the utility and relevance of STEM knowledge," Chiu said.

The curriculum to be included in WISEngineering is research-based and tested to either replace or supplement standards-based instruction in math classrooms.

Typically, teachers face an enormous amount of preparation and cost to integrate these kinds of projects into their classrooms, Chiu said. WISEngineering is free, and the online learning environment will guide students through the projects so that teachers can focus on helping students learn and apply STEM concepts.

The $250,000 grant WISEngineering received is a Next Generation Learning Challenge Wave II Winner awarded by EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education by promoting the intelligent use of information technology, according to its website. Chiu is working in collaboration with researchers from Hofstra University and the City University of New York.

Once the building of WISEngineering is completed, researchers will test its effectiveness on 100 to 200 seventh-graders in Paterson, N.J. This pilot program will run in one middle school with which the researchers have already connected. Researchers will track these students through their eighth- and into their ninth-grade years. They will collect test scores and evaluate whether or not these scores increased as a result of the use of WISEngineering.

"It is our hope that upon completion of WISEngineering, we will be able to secure more funding for a larger-scale implementation and testing process," Chiu said.

WISEngineering builds from the open-source inquiry science community of the Web-based Inquiry Science Environment, or WISE4, originally developed in 1998 at the University of California, Berkeley. WISE4 is focused on science inquiry, while WISEngineering focuses on engineering design.

Media Contact

Audrey Breen

Curry School of Education