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UA Program Helps High School Students Succeed in Engineering Education

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UA Program Helps High School Students Succeed in Engineering Education

Jan. 5, 2012
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Course includes admission to UA and shows students what it's like to work as an engineer.

Students in 20 Arizona high schools are trying out their engineering skills just as high school athletes test their abilities before jumping into college sports.

Engineering 102 students show off their solar oven at the fall 2011 Solar Oven Throw Down on the UA Mall. It's not all fun and games -- students are required to design projects, give presentations and write reports.

Engineering 102, the University of Arizona's introductory engineering class, is being offered at these schools to give math- and science-savvy students hands-on experience before they commit to a university engineering program. The high school program is based on the Engineering 102 class that freshman engineering students take at UA.

"We have lots of students who either think they want to be engineers, or, on the opposite side, have no idea what engineering is about," said Sarah Streb, who teaches the course at Tucson's Salpointe Catholic High School. "A lot of students find out they want to be engineers through this course and a lot of students find out they don't want to be engineers."

Students who might never consider investing the time and money to explore engineering as college freshmen can sample the discipline in a low-risk environment, while those who want to be engineers can take a real engineering class as a final test of their career decision, said Jim Baygents, the UA College of Engineering Associate Dean for Academic Affairs.

The course, which costs $450 and includes admission to UA as a non-degree-seeking student, shows students what it's like to work as an engineer and exposes some stereotypes associated with the profession.

It doesn't matter if it's spaghetti or steel, structural engineering principles are universal. The Engineering 102 students shown here have been charged with building the tallest, strongest structure they can with minimal materials.

"The stereotypes are not so much wrong as way too narrow," Baygents explained. "Do engineers use calculators? Yes. Do engineers build rockets? Yes. But they do many, many other things," he said. This includes designing processes and hardware used in medicine, food production, communications, agriculture, construction and many other industries.

Engineers in all these disciplines are motivated to improve peoples' lives, he said. But their skills and technical interests are as different as their industries -- from cosmetics to electronics or medical devices to computer games.

The high school 102 class actually gives students a more in-depth and supported experience than the college-level course, Baygents added. High School 102 is a two-semester program, while the version offered on the UA campus is one semester. High school students often take the class from a teacher they know and mostly work on projects under close supervision in class, whereas the professor is new to most of the college freshmen and they build projects with teammates outside of class.

Most 102 projects focus on engineering design through calculations, simulations, building and testing, Streb said. At Salpointe, her students work on rocketry, radio astronomy, solar ovens and other projects.

The project list is different at each school. "We allow teachers to develop supplemental curricula based on their interests and those of the class," said Meghan Albert, the College of Engineering academic advisor who coordinated the program until recently. (Jill Rogers took over the program in 2012.)

Teachers get additional project ideas during the annual 102 summer workshop at UA, where they share the course materials they've developed. In addition, help comes from campus. For instance, Streb worked with Hal Tharp, interim head of the electrical and computer engineering department, to develop a project based on robots built in plastic sandwich boxes.

Cali Squire, a UA engineering freshman, took the high school class last year after her calculus teacher encouraged her to enroll. "Once I took it, I said, 'Oh my gosh, this is what I want to do with my life,' which was really exciting."

Her favorite project involved building a Popsicle-stick bridge and programming a robot to drive back and forth across it five times. "I videotaped it and watched the video over and over just to see it actually happen and knowing that we had programmed it," she said. "I was really happy the way it turned out and that it actually ended up working."

Lejla Prijic, who took the class last year at Tucson's University High School, loved building a solar oven. "It was just so much fun," she said. It didn't record the highest temperature in the class, but her team ended up with zero percent error between the oven's actual and predicted performance. "It was absolutely amazing to get that. It was great," she said.

Solar ovens are one of the core projects for 102 that all the high school students build, and they're invited to participate in an on-campus competition that's part of the university-level 102 classes. "The Engineering 102 sections get together to compete for best-of-show, highest temperature, and other things," Albert said. "It's a fun event."

Quite a few Phoenix-area high schools participate in the Engineering102 program, and students from those classes sometimes find Arizona State University to be the logical place to study engineering.

"We understand that students will go other places for schooling," Albert said. "If we were selfish in thinking they should only attend UA, I don't think this program would have been so successful so soon." Engineering 102 in high schools has grown from one school in 2008 to 20 schools in 2012, with two more, Corona Del Sol and Sahuaro, scheduled to join up in the fall of 2012. UA, ASU, and Northern Arizona University all give students three hours credit for the high school course. Many of Arizona's community colleges do likewise.

The high school 102 students are eligible for a CAT card, which gives them access to the library and many student discounts. "With the CAT card, you already feel like you're part of UA," Squire said.

And the program makes enrolling at UA easier, too. Meghan Albert, and now Jill Rogers, take student applications personally, which Squire said was a relief. "You're not thinking it's just out there in the computer world somewhere. You know someone is reading it. It took a lot of stress off me."

Completing the class before freshman year also can be a stress reliever, said Johana Guzman, who took Engineering 102 two years ago at Flowing Wells High School. "Your freshman year is kind of overwhelming as it is," she said. "So just not having to take this extra class alleviates some of the stress." She had friends who were taking 102 in addition to all the other math and science courses freshman engineers study. "It was harder for them to get through the first semester than it was for me because I already had three credits out of the way."

The 102 class solidified Guzman's decision to study engineering. "I'm the first generation to go to college in my family," she said. "This class really helped me transition because I had the help of my instructor and peers and the College of Engineering to guide me through."

While there are many benefits to the program, the ultimate goal is that "we're trying to get information into the hands of students as soon as possible so they can make informed career decisions," Baygents said. "And we're obviously trying to highlight the benefits and rewards of what engineers do: the good works they do to improve the quality of the human condition, to make life better for people."