Innovation by Example

Summer 2006

In a fun, hands-on way, the Whiting School leads the vital effort to engage young students in exploring engineering.

THE CHALLENGES OF THE 21ST CENTURY—developing alternative energy sources, promoting sustainable development, managing threats to the environment, defeating human diseases, to name a few— will be solved by innovators, inventors, and creators. In short, it is the future generations of engineers and scientists who will lead the way.

Many experts predict, however, that the United States’ ability to meet these challenges will be crippled in the next 10 to 20 years by a shortage of workers skilled in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). “The United States has already begun to experience an alarming rise in the outsourcing of STEM jobs to foreign firms,” observes Leigh Abts, deputy director of the Whiting School of Engineering’s Center for Educational Outreach (CEO).

While Abts and other educators at the Whiting School—and across the country— have been concerned about this for years, the issue took on national prominence in January when President George W. Bush recognized in his State of the Union speech that America’s economic future depends on investment in science and technology research and education.

Although President Bush’s goal to increase Advanced Placement offerings in high school science is admirable, educators at the Whiting School are convinced that to affect real change, the interest of even younger students must be cultivated—and quickly. With this objective in mind, the CEO in July launched the first phase of Engineering Innovation. This bold and original three-course sequential program, geared to students in middle school through high school, will be implemented in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and California this year, and in states across the country in the summer of 2007.

Working with faculty accredited by the Whiting School, more than 80 Maryland high school juniors and seniors participating in Engineering Innovation will complete “What is Engineering?,” a four-week course. Much more than lectures, it will feature virtual and hands-on laboratories, oral presentations, and testing structures the students have built. The fun course captures some of the amazing ways engineering touches daily life. It’s an introduction “to the entire field of engineering from the usual disciplines like structural and chemical, to the daily activities of an engineer,” says Abts. In teams of 18 to 22, students will explore the analytic tools and techniques and the basics of the engineering process. They’ll get to actually build a better mousetrap, experiment with chemical processes, and construct a bridge using spaghetti and epoxy. Students who earn an “A” or “B” will receive three college credits transferable to Hopkins.

The “What Is Engineering?” course will be offered in three locations in the Baltimore-Washington area, including on the Homewood campus. In California, the University of California’s Mathematics, Engineering Science Achievement (MESA) program will offer it to about 110 students in July, taught by faculty trained at Hopkins. Locations include California State universities in Fullerton, Long Beach, and the Channel Islands, as well as the University of California Santa Barbara and the University of the Pacific.

In the summer of 2007, the curriculum will be expanded to include “The Way Things Work” for rising eighth graders and “Evolution of Technology” for rising ninth and tenth graders. Educators in Texas and Pennsylvania have already expressed interest in offering the three courses.

The curriculum emphasizes creativity and innovation. The “What is Engineering?” course is based on an earlier one developed by Michael Karweit, a research professor in the Whiting School’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

“While many educators are studying the shortage of young people studying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, Johns Hopkins is actually doing something about it,” says Marc Donohue, associate dean for research at the Whiting School and director of the CEO. The program “has the potential to increase dramatically the number of young scholars studying technical disciplines in the next decade,” he adds. “We’ve had a terrific response and are confident that Engineering Innovation can create a nationwide pipeline of innovative and creative thinkers who will lead us through the century.”

Local corporations and government grants are helping to underwrite Engineering Innovation and provide scholarships for students who could not otherwise attend.