College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

An early start to engineering

Somewhere is a community where ideas about designing, creating, and innovating run rampant. Excited preschoolers explore levers, pulleys, and inclined planes. Elementary students study at least one course unit that is all about engineering. Middle and high school students learn about energy and the environment along with aerospace engineering.

Somewhere, it turns out, is situated on the east shore of White Bear Lake, just north of the Twin Cities, in the town of Mahtomedi.

The community of just over 8,000 residents takes pride in integrating science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) into the classroom, motivated by the responsibility to prepare students for leadership in the 21st century.

Through its Engineering Leadership Program, the school district builds imagination, creativity, and collaboration into its curriculum by offering engineering classes at all grade levels.

“We believe that play is the work of children,” says Mary George, the district’s engineering program coordinator. “We find fun, hands-on ways to introduce young students to engineering concepts so they have positive associations with engineering and science as they go through school.”

As part of the program, preschool students get to enjoy a Mobile Engineering Lab and explore six simple machines. The elementary school follows the Engineering is Elementary Program produced by Boston Museum of Science that blends hands-on problem solving, creativity, and teamwork. Project Lead the Way courses are mandatory for all sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth graders, and additional electives are available in the middle and high schools.

The school district is also on the brink of bringing the engineering design process to life in the curriculum. Leaders are currently planning to build fabrication laboratories in the elementary, middle, and high schools. Students in art, music, math, science, and engineering, as well as community members, will be able to get real world, hands-on experience and practice their critical thinking skills while creating and building almost anything using modern technology.

Dale Johnson“We have to get kids interested in engineering early—waiting until high school to introduce them to engineering is too late for it to really resonate with them,” says Dale Johnson, BSME’60 and Mahtomedi resident. “The foundation of our economy rests in jobs for people that come from companies developing new products, getting them into the market, and competing in the global market. To put it plainly, companies need engineers and our job is to encourage students to consider engineering as a career.”

Johnson has played an integral part in getting the Engineering Leadership Program into the school district. “The truth of this program is really starting to show up and can be seen in how a classroom operates,” he says. “Kids are engaged and excited, and so are the teachers. The students love to come to school because they can’t wait to get into the classroom and be challenged to solve problems.”

The passion to introduce people to engineering extends beyond the classrooms to the community. In November 2010, the Engineering Leadership Program hosted an Experience Engineering event to explore the science of civil engineering. More than 900 people attended to see the technology and ideas behind civil engineering. The event included creative activities as well as a parade of trucks, earthmovers, and construction vehicles, as well as a helicopter flying in, providing attendees with the opportunity to check out the equipment.

A group of Iowa State’s engineering students traveled up to the event with the college’s recruitment and community outreach group to help spread the word about the college. The group hosted a booth that included information about the college, LEGO building tables, computers to simulate bridge building, and stations to construct bridges and ginger bread houses.

Emily Davenport, graduate student in chemical and biological engineering, helped out at the bridge-building station, where attendees used straws, string, paperclips, and tape to construct a bridge that would hold the most Skittles candy. “We had to make some changes on the fly to our activity, and the students ended up helping us figure some things out,” she says. “It was so great to see them use knowledge, logic, and reasoning, and apply it just for fun. These kids were incredibly smart and so enthusiastic, and they had a genuine interest in learning about engineering.”

Johnson says he hears first-hand from the community about how much they appreciate having Iowa State students at their events. “Parents will tell me about how their children will come home from an event sharing some information they learned or ask if they can go to Iowa State. These college students are great role models.”

As the Engineering Leadership Program grows, the school is seeing students participate in engineering activities outside of class, including five robotics teams, two rocket teams, and a design challenge team. After-school engineering classes are full with a waiting list, requiring more classes to be offered to keep up with the demand.

And students continue their interest in engineering long after they graduate. At Iowa State’s College of Engineering, twelve undergraduates are from Mahtomedi and more are applying to attend.

“This community is truly unique, but it is inspiring,” Johnson says. “I hope schools across the U.S. will continue to increase efforts to help build a strong foundation in engineering within their students. We need it to help keep our country competitive and strong.”