A good friend of mine sent me an email last week about a technology and engineering program she had visited at the University of Massachusetts Lowell campus. She was really impressed with the program an the way they were introducing engineering concepts and integrating science and mathematics in a summer program for students in grades 5 to 11. Well with her introduction I just had to learn more and I was introduced to Doug Prime the Executive Director and Co-Founder of the UMass Lowell Future Engineers Center. We quickly arranged for me to make a visit while the program (actually a number of Design Camp programs) were running this week.
Design Camp is a series of summer workshops for students with different interests and at different age groups. And as education as these workshops are, fun is absolutely a large and critical part of them as well. From the web site:
DESIGNCAMP is a summer science and engineering enrichment program that offers a wide range of project-based workshops for students in grades 5 - 11. If you like to invent things, do experiments, build things, and figure out how things work, then this is the place for you!
At DESIGNCAMP, you get to think of your own ideas and build them. All of our programs engage kids in interesting and challenging projects. If you come to camp, you could learn how to design a security system for you bedroom, build a hot air balloon, program a search-and-rescue robot, build a PVC pipe submarine, or design your own stereo speakers--and those are only a few of the cool projects we do at DESIGNCAMP!
This summer there are 13 different workshops that will reach well over 500 students. I was able to visit several of the classrooms - the workshops are held in various labs and classrooms that are used during the regular school year by the universities School of Engineering. I saw some of the projects and talked to faculty and students.
The students were quite proud of the projects they were working on and very happy to explain them to me. The younger kids who were building animated (controlled by micro processors and electronics) literally lined up unasked to demo their projects for me. Their enthusiasm was exciting. Even more exciting to me was that they were clearly learning and using what they learned in very creative ways.
Some of the older students showed me there PVC pipe submarines and talked knowledgeably about things like neutral buoyancy and control issues they were facing. In the Digital FX workshops what sounds like learning about things like high speed photography (catching images of a marshmallow being shot out of an air pressure air gun for example) was incorporating a bunch of physics and math as well.
I'm told that a lot of the students take their workshop projects home (often with extra parts) so that they can continue to develop them. And to experiment with "what happens if I change this" sorts of questions. Stimulating this sort of exploratory learning and building a set of critical thinking skills around projects that let kids explore their creative side is just really exciting to me. Apparently it resonates well with the students as some not only return as students but return as mentors and instructors as well.
The Future Engineers Center also runs an Assistive Technology Design Fair program which I heard about but did not get to visit.
UMass Lowell's ATDF is an engineering service-learning project that challenges teams of high school students to find and solve real-world design problems involving assistive technology. Each team must find an elderly, disabled or special-needs person in their community, and identify a problem that they have which can be solved using technology - this person becomes their client.
Students research, brainstorm, explore, and evaluate possible design solutions, and ultimately build a working prototype of their solution to present at our Design Fair held each May. In 2007, we had 30 design teams and over 120 students from 10 Massachusetts high schools participate in ATDF, and 60% of students' projects were delivered to clients.
This is a longer program but it allows students to actually engineer working solutions to help a disabled, elderly or special needs "client" with a real problem. I love that it involves solving real problems in ways that can make a real difference for someone. It's good stuff.
A lot of these programs seems like it should be reasonably reproducible by other schools and universities. For more information check out UMass Lowell Future Engineers Center web site.