U.Va. Engineering Kits Aim to Keep Middle School Students Excited about Careers in Technology

From solar powered cars and hovercraft to bridges and artificial limbs, Virginia middle school students are learning the many facets of engineering as a result of a program developed by the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Virginia.

For the past seven years, U.Va. engineering students have created Engineering Teaching Kits designed to show students all the possibilities that a career in engineering can offer.

A steady decline in the number of engineers being produced nationally is what prompted U.Va. to target middle schools, according to Larry G. Richards, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering who administers the ETK program.

"The problem is that students at the middle school level are making decisions that will influence the rest of their lives," said Richards. "If they don't stick with math and science, they're not going to be able to get into an engineering program after high school. So we go into the middle schools and try to convince students that they could be engineers."

But before convincing them that they can be engineers, said Richards, the kits show the students what it is to be an engineer, particularly emphasizing the role that creativity plays.

"Students at this age know that engineering requires good math and science skills, but they may not be aware of all the areas that engineering touches. Engineering is everywhere," Richard said.

Each year, fourth-year U.Va. mechanical engineering students choose a topic and work in teams to develop a kit for that topic. They come up with a five-day lesson plan and establish a design challenge.

For instance, the solar car teaching kit has lessons on how solar cells work, how to measure the output of a solar cell and how to measure which motor will be best for which task. Students who use the kit learn about friction and about tire materials.

Armed with these concepts, the middle school students work in teams to construct an actual working solar car that will pull a kart with weights on it. The competition is ongoing, not only within the class but from year to year, to determine which car can pull the most weight.

"I've had middle school students come to my office long after the kit was taught because they have an idea about how to make their solar car better," Richards said. "So I take them into my lab and let them try."

Once a teaching kit is developed the U.Va. students go into a classroom and teach the kit under the watchful eye of the middle school teacher and a graduate student from U.Va.'s Curry School of Education. They receive feedback, make alterations as necessary, and then package the kit.

"The idea is that we could send the kit to a teacher who has never seen it before, and he or she could employ at their school without our help," Richards said. "Having said that, teachers often tell us the most valuable part of the process is having our students in their classrooms. Middle school students see the college students who aren't that much older and can imagine themselves being engineers. Our students are our best advertisement."

In addition to solar cars, past versions of the Engineering Teaching Kit have included hovercraft built out of materials from the grocery store, catapults and prosthetic limbs. Included among this year's kits, which will be tested in Charlottesville schools later this spring, are “Electricity Rocks,” which challenges students to build, test and optimize a simple electro-mechanical speaker; “Surf's Up,” a project to design structures that will withstand tsunamis and coastal flooding; and “A Warmer World,” which teaches basic heat transfer and engineering design by studying the causes and effects of global warming.