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Students with Lego robot
An Engineering 102 student adjusts his Lego robot before it attempts to climb a ribbon.

Kids Try Out College Engineering Classes in High School

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Kids Try Out College Engineering Classes in High School

Dec. 7, 2009
Test-driving a UA Engineering degree in high school allows students to make sure the subject is really what they want to study, and can save parents money and students stress.

“Trying engineering at the university can be difficult,” says Jeff Goldberg, dean of engineering at the University of Arizona. “It takes time. It’s expensive. And if you don’t like it, you may have trouble transferring credits to another major.”“So our idea was: Why not let students try engineering in high school -- in a safe place, with a teacher they know and trust?”

This chance to take an engineering class before committing to the major in college now exists at six Arizona high schools through the Engineering 102 in High Schools program. The course will expand to include 20 schools by fall 2010.

The class carries UA credit and has three main goals, said Fred DePrez, principal at Hamilton High School in Chandler: To introduce engineering to math- and science-savvy students who may not have considered it as a career, to give students who really want to be engineers a head start on college, and to help students find out if the career is for them.

“If they find they don’t like engineering before they go to the university, it can save them time and a small fortune for their parents,” said DePrez, who contacted UA in 2007 about setting up such a program.

Ahead of the Game

The high school 102 course also saves time and money for students when they get to campus. Electrical engineering freshman Cheyne Harvey took Engineering 102 at Hamilton last year and also came to UA with advanced placement (AP) credits in calculus and physics. He’s now a semester ahead and will be taking sophomore-level classes during spring semester.

The Engineering 102 in High Schools course is based on UA’s introductory engineering class, ENGR 102, said Meghan Albert-Powell, UA’s coordinator for the high-school version. Unlike the UA class, the high-school course is taught for an entire school year, rather than a semester, which gives students more time for projects and teacher contact.

“That’s probably been the biggest perk,” Harvey said. “Completing the class in high school and taking it for a full year made it less time consuming and stressful. Now that I’m here at UA, I already have credit for the class and I can concentrate on other classes.”

Harvey took 102 from Hamilton’s AP physics and calculus teacher, Jim Clark, who, like all the high school 102 instructors, has been registered as an adjunct UA professor to give him access to the online material needed to teach the class. The high school seniors are registered as non-degree-seeking students at UA, and their application for Engineering 102 rolls over to serve as their application for admission, meaning they’re already enrolled if they decide to attend UA.

As part of last year’s class, Clark’s students spent three months designing and building a six-foot-long model bridge. They split into teams that were responsible for project subassemblies.

“There were so many people working on it that they began to see that they don’t have to be a genius at everything,” Clark said. “They just have to be good at some things. That gives them the idea that they can be successful in engineering because it’s not as hard as it looks.”

The teamwork in Clark’s 102 class “is probably what prepared me most for engineering at UA,” Harvey added. “Working in groups is what engineering is all about, and that was the biggest help.”

Hamilton students built several other projects, including full-size canoes made solely from cardboard and duct tape, which they tested in the high school’s swimming pool.

Teaching Teachers about Robotics

This year, projects based on Lego Mindstorm Robotics kits have become part of the course at all six schools. These kits include sensors, motors, wheels, onboard microprocessors and everything else needed to construct programmable robots.

“We give the high school teachers the tools they need, and some sample projects, but we also encourage them to come up with their own activities because they are in the best position to fine-tune the problems for their students,” said Eniko Enikov, a UA associate professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering. Enikov designed the Mindstorm part of the course for the on-campus ENGR 102 class and now has extended it via distance learning to the high school program.

Enikov holds online office hours for high school 102 teachers to help them solve Mindstorm technical problems and to provide other support. “We have software that allows us to see the teacher’s desktop and they can see ours, and we can remotely control the Mindstorm software on their computers,” he said.

Teachers train with Lego robots
High school teachers learn to use Lego robotics kits to teach their students numerous engineering principles.

Students don’t get step-by-step, cookbook instructions, Enikov emphasized. “We give them a little training on how to use the kits, but then we want them to go through the engineering synthesis to look at a problem, define it, identify the specifications and come up with a solution.”

UA will offer a two-week training workshop in the summer of 2010 to provide further teacher support for all aspects of the 102 program.

While Engineering 102 in High Schools benefits students and helps UA recruit highly qualified freshmen, the program’s overriding goal is to address the engineering shortage in Arizona and the nation, DePrez and Goldberg explained.

“If every school in the state had a program like this, if every school had 20 kids who seriously wanted to be engineers, we wouldn’t have an engineering shortage,” DePrez noted.

“Hamilton is a very good football school, and we have recruiters here all the time talking to kids in their junior year,” he said. “Why don’t we do the same for our top students, who now wait until the second semester of their senior year to find out where they’re going to college?”

Recruitment Tools

UA already is taking a page from athletic recruiting by bringing high school 102 students to campus for tours and by inviting them to Senior Design Day, in which UA engineering seniors display their capstone design projects. It’s not unlike inviting football recruits to a home game.

“We’re not so naïve as to think that all these students will attend UA,” Goldberg said. “These are highly qualified kids. It’s OK if they go to MIT. Our goal through this program is to excite kids about engineering. But there are some nice benefits for UA because we get our branding out there and this effort trickles down. High school freshmen see what the top seniors in their school are doing, the fun projects they’re involved in during 102, and they say, ‘I might like to do that.’ If you look at it from my systems and industrial engineering background; this is part of our supply chain of future students.”

Last year, Hamilton was the first to offer 102 in high school, and five of the 20 students who took the class enrolled in UA engineering. In addition to Hamilton, the 102 class also is being taught this year at Brophy College Preparatory, Ironwood Ridge, Marana Mt. View, Sabino, and Flowing Wells High Schools. Students pay a fee of about $350 to take the course.

Getting the Engineering 102 in High Schools program up and running was a big undertaking, Goldberg added, requiring coordination between at least 20 people on campus, including those in Admissions, the Outreach College and the Engineering Academic Affairs Office. Others involved include Len Fine, Darcy Renfro and Caroline VanIngen-Dunn of the Science Foundation of Arizona; Cathleen Barton and Carlos Contreras from Intel; and the Tucson Unified School District. Science Foundation of Arizona, Intel and the UA Outreach College have provided funding for the program.