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Rensselaer programs helping to create pipeline for future :: 14 April, 2007
On a recent day during an after-school program at Troy’s Doyle Middle School, two seventh-grade girls cheerfully greeted a visitor, eagerly explaining their newest robotic creation, “the plug,” a nano device used to repair blood vessels.
Of course, the colorful model, made from child-favorite LEGO® plastic bricks along with the toymaker’s sophisticated computer technology, wasn’t small enough to fit inside an actual vein or artery to plug up tissue damage. But the imagination and the students’ ability to grasp the concept behind the nanorobot model, and their determination to build it, constitute the epitome of what Bill Clark has worked to accomplish in his eight years as a technology education teacher at the middle school.
“These two girls took it upon themselves to conduct research via the Internet and come up with what they thought would be a good solution to a medical problem using nanotechnology. I was amazed,” says Clark, who coached the two girls along with six other students as a team for the international LEGO FIRST Nano Quest Challenge. FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded by inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen.
In early December, after months of preparation and practice, the students joined 23 teams of youngsters ages 9 to 14 from around the Capital Region to compete in the regional competition that took place at Rensselaer’s Darrin Communications Center. The finalists will attend the FIRST LEGO League World Festival at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta in April.
LIGHTING THE SPARK
Rensselaer’s Center for Initiatives in Pre-College Education (CIPCE) has adopted the event in partnership with General Electric for the last three years to spark an interest in mathematics, science, and engineering among local middle school students. The competition is one of a number of K-12 pipeline programs across campus that build upon the Institute’s traditional strengths to foster innovations in interactive learning, educational technologies, and teacher education.
“What we do is take what Rensselaer does so well in science, technology, and engineering design and transfer that to the elementary and secondary classrooms,” says Lester Rubenfeld, professor of mathematical sciences and director of CIPCE.
For the Nano Quest Challenge, the student teams designed, built, and programmed a set of LEGO MINDSTORMS™ robots to explore the uses of nanotechnology. The teams focused on areas in which nanotechnology could have or is already having an impact, such as medicine, computers, and the environment. The robots were made from standard LEGO parts and a computerized unit that controls the motors and sensors.
The programs were written by the students using the ROBOLAB™ software developed by LEGO and Tufts University that incorporates a special version of the software LabVIEW created by Rensselaer trustee Jeffrey Kodosky ’70, co-founder of National Instruments, who has been an enthusiastic supporter of CIPCE’s K-12 robotic efforts.
“Building robotics is a great way to inspire students, boys as well as girls, to learn science, technology, engineering, and math,” Kodosky says. “By making software that is accessible to our young students, we at National Instruments are learning how to make our professional tools even easier to use. And, working on robotic toys is just plain fun — for students and for us as the developers.”
The same day as the LEGO regional contest, another smaller, but equally as engaging competition took place between Rensselaer sophomores and high school students nearby in the George M. Low Center for Industrial Innovation. About 150 students competed against one another in “The Game,” which incorporated the Vex Robotic Design System (see, also, page 2). The technology is similar to LEGO’s, but the programming is more advanced, and the robots are larger, made of metal, and have more motors and sensors.
When Rubenfeld learned about the Vex competition, he approached the organizers, Larry Ruff, systems engineer and laboratory supervisor, and Paul Schoch, associate professor of electrical, computer, and systems engineering, to investigate whether Vex would be a good technology to incorporate in a summer program to attract students in grades 8-10.
“So far Vex been a good fit with all the teams, and I think it would be appropriate for the younger students as well,” says Ruff, who incorporated the contest as part of his Introduction to Engineering Design course.
Schoch, who also is involved with CIPCE’s LEGO Robotics Program, adds that the introduction of Vex technology provides the next level of a continuous K-12 pipeline effort.
For the LEGO program, Rensselaer undergraduates work in local schools and Boys and Girls Clubs to facilitate after-school robotics activities. While there, they mentor students on how to design, construct, and program robotics to accomplish engineering challenges, and at the end of the fall term, these students get to test their skills with one another during the FIRST LEGO League Tournament.
“These and other K-12 programs that Rensselaer offers are opportunities to engage students in technology and science,” Schoch says. “They see it, feel it, and get immediate feedback that they can take back to the drawing board. That’s something they’re not getting enough of in the classroom.”
THE QUIET CRISIS
For several years President Shirley Ann Jackson has been warning of a looming gap in the science and engineering workforce, driven primarily by three factors. Those who responded to President John F. Kennedy’s historic call to action following the launch of the Sputnik satellite and became the scientists and engineers whose work has fueled the U.S. economy for a generation are on the verge of retiring in record numbers. As a nation of immigrants, the United States has relied on students, professors, and researchers who came from abroad to study and remain, but in a “flattening” world offering expanding opportunities, their numbers are decreasing. In addition, not enough young people in this country are being excited and prepared to pursue careers in science and engineering. These factors, in combination with the decreasing federal commitment to funding basic research, are what President Jackson describes as the “quiet crisis.”
“It is quiet because it takes decades to educate a scientist, mathematician, or an engineer, so the true impact unfolds only gradually, over time,” says President Jackson. “It is a crisis because the discoveries and innovations of our science and engineering workforce create the new opportunities and industries which keep our economy thriving, provide for our security, and mitigate the global scourges that breed suffering and global instability.”
President Jackson has been actively involved with other academic, corporate, and government leaders to bring national attention to this looming crisis. Numerous reports and policy papers — including from the National Academies, the Council on Competitiveness, and the AAAS — have documented the problem, and detailed recommendations for change which include significant enhancements in math and science education and investments in research. Legislative proposals based on recommendations in these reports have been introduced by bipartisan coalitions in the Congress and by President George W. Bush.
“The national conversation on this issue is now engaged,” President Jackson says. “Now it is time to turn rhetoric into reality. The clock is ticking. It is time to implement solutions, and those solutions must come from all sectors—academic, business, and government — and from all levels — national, state, and local.”
She urges a national focus on energy research as a focal point to excite and encourage greater interest in science and engineering careers. “Just as President Kennedy galvanized the nation in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik, so too could the President around energy security,” she says. “Energy security is the space race of this millennium.”
“If we are to succeed in closing this emerging gap, all of us must get engaged in the effort to excite, encourage, and prepare young people to pursue careers in science, math, and engineering,” President Jackson says. “We must have a cadre of teachers and mentors at all levels who have the necessary skills to help these students excel. And it must be a priority. Society must value science and those who do it.”
Closing the gap, President Jackson argues, also will require a national commitment to develop more of the talent of all citizens, especially what she calls the “underrepresented majority” — women, minorities, and those with disabilities who traditionally have been a disproportionately small part of the nation’s science, engineering, and technology workforce, but who now comprise the demographic majority in the U.S.
“There has been a huge demographic shift in our country, with women and minorities representing the new face of America. Along with this new reality, we have this enormous amount of talent that hasn’t been tapped,” says Kenneth Durgans, vice provost for the Office of Institute Diversity, which hosts Rensselaer’s annual Black Family Technology Awareness Day.
Earlier this year, more than 450 area students and their families participated in the event, which featured 19 workshops. Led by Rensselaer professors, students, and community organizations, the workshops included building roller coasters, creating a hot air balloon using household items, hands-on interactive sessions exploring engineering and chemistry science experiments, and a CIPCE robotics session.
“This is a special day designed to help eliminate the science and technology gap for members of the minority community,” Durgans says. “By showcasing science and technology in a fun and interactive way, we hope to motivate more minority students to pursue careers in these fields.”
Women now outnumber men in undergraduate collegiate enrollment and, together with minorities, make up more than half the U.S. workforce. Yet, they remain underrepresented in science and engineering careers.
“This really is a societal issue,” says Barbara Ruel, director of women in engineering and diversity at Rensselaer. “We need to spread the message that women can perform equally as well as men in science, technology, and especially in the engineering fields.”
Ruel has worked to effectively spread that message by recruiting and retaining women students, and by developing engaging programs that help them develop the skills and self-confidence they need to successfully enter and stay in these disciplines.
Ruel oversees the popular “Design Your Future Day.” Established in 1997, the program introduces 11th-grade girls with high aptitude and interest in math and science to a variety of academic degree programs and career paths in engineering, science, architecture, and technology.
More than 120 11th-grade girls from around the Northeast take part in the day’s workshops, led by Rensselaer faculty, staff, and graduate students. Last year, the program featured more than a dozen fun and interactive workshops, including the “Body Bag” in which students learned how scientists and engineers can impact human health and quality of life. The students also participated in the “Engineering at Rensselaer is Sweeeeet!” workshop, where they learned how to assemble a box of candy in the Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory, and saw firsthand different manufacturing processes including robotics and automation, plastic injection molding, three-dimensional printing, and water-jet cutting. “Rensselaer recruits 10 to 12 young women annually from this one-day program,” Ruel says.
Each February during National Engineers Week more than 250 Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts take part in “Exploring Engineering Day,” which offers myriad hands-on learning activities.
“Since its inception, the program has increased in both size and diversity,” Ruel says. “This year, children participated in a variety of activities that covered a wide range of disciplines, including electrical, aeronautical, and materials engineering.
When Exploring Engineering Day was first established in 1997, mostly boys participated. Since 2000, participation has doubled and half of the registrants have been girls. Last year, the Scouts participated in activities such as the “Gak,” a lab exercise in which they combined materials to witness chemical reactions and analyze material properties.
“Seeing the creativity and imagination that the kids bring to the activities is inspiring,” says Tara Clancy, environmental engineering major and member of the Society of Women Engineers, one of several student clubs that helped organize the event. “Working with the young students at Exploring Engineering Day also reminds me of why I first became interested in engineering. I love engineering, and events like this are great opportunities to share the fun that I have solving engineering problems with others.”
Ruel believes programs like this are part of Rensselaer’s mission. “It’s our job as higher education institutions to work with industry to help these youngsters learn about emerging technologies and to teach them about what engineers do,” she says. “New technologies create the need for new jobs and job skills. Guidance counselors and parents may not be familiar with cutting-edge careers, new emerging technologies, and the interdisciplinary research that goes on at the best universities.”
A RENSSELAER TRADITION RENEWED
The idea that higher education can play an important role in helping students attain the skills and knowledge they need for careers in engineering, science, and technology is nothing new for Rensselaer. Some of the Institute’s earliest pipeline programs for underrepresented and underserved groups have been in existence for decades and continue to be run largely through the Office of Minority Student Affairs (OMSA).
PREFACE, one of the oldest programs, established nearly 30 years ago, is a highly selective, all-expense-paid, two-week residential summer program for talented high school sophomores entering 11th grade. The students take part in lab exercises, discussions, and field trips, and take classes in core disciplines, from electrical engineering and computing to leadership and career development.
“The focus is really on trying to develop a means to not only identify potential applicants for Rensselaer, but to lay a foundation for pursuing careers in the sciences and engineering,” says Dean of Students Mark Smith, who oversees OMSA and served as its director during the 1990s. Smith has been at the forefront of the Institute’s curriculum development for pre-college and pipeline initiatives and has established many corporate and professional contacts for minority students seeking internships, co-ops, and job placement.
In partnership with the New York State Education Department, OMSA also established the Rensselaer Science and Technology Entry Program (STEP) in 1986. Through STEP, 150 underrepresented and economically disadvantaged 7th- through 12th-grade students in five area middle and high schools participate in a range of after-school enrichment activities, summer programs, research labs on college campuses and industry, and career development experiences. The same students have the opportunity to attend year after year to advance their skills and knowledge.
“Rensselaer is spearheading an effort to build a national network of K- 12 pipeline partnerships with organizations that are focused on the identification, nurturing, and educational development of women and underrepresented minority groups in order to facilitate their access to higher education in the fields we offer,” says Eddie Ade Knowles, vice president for student life. “And, we are reaching out to our alumni to become active participants in this national effort as mentors and as active recruiters of talented high school students.”
A NEW VISION
Alyssa Pasquale ’05 recalls a time several years ago when she figured out, with a little help, how to connect a clapper circuit for a light switch. The experience was one of Pasquale’s first glimpses into the real world of engineering as an Averill Park high school senior participating in New Visions. The program is a partnership between CIPCE and Questar III (formerly called BOCES, serving Rensselaer, Greene, and Columbia counties) that provides hands-on, university-level experience to high school students considering a college major in math, engineering, information technology, or science.
“When I was in high school, I had no idea what engineering was,” says Pasquale who, because of her experience in New Visions, stayed a semester ahead in earning her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at Rensselaer, where she also recently completed her master’s degree in the same field.
“Through New Visions, I discovered that engineering wasn’t just one discipline,” she adds. “I learned about each type of engineering through soil analysis labs, fiber optic and laser experiments, working with electronics, and other activities. The experience helped me decide that I definitely did want to be an engineer, and what sort of engineering I wanted to study.”
Up to 15 high school seniors are selected for each New Visions class. On weekday mornings during the school year, the students are exposed to labs and coursework, tour local companies, and interact with numerous professionals in various fields of work.
“New Visions gives students the opportunity to gain valuable insight into careers and research. And, as with all Rensselaer’s K-12 pipeline programs, it gives our young people a tremendous opportunity to see a future in technology and science careers they never could have imagined before,” Rubenfeld says. “That’s Rensselaer’s ultimate mission.”
Release link: http://www.rpi.edu/dept/metasite/news/magazine/winter2006-07/features/feature1-pg1.html