Toying with Technology celebrates 20 years of teaching

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Allie Elliott, a senior in elementary education, works with United Community Elementary School students on building a robot as part of the Toying with Technology℠ outreach program

Twenty years ago, a course called Toying with Technology℠ was just an idea. Now it is celebrating its 20th anniversary of bringing engineering concepts to the classroom.

Materials Science and Engineering University Professor Dr. Larry Genalo and the late Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Dr. Charles Wright designed the course through a Miller Faculty Fellowship they received. Their target audience consisted of education majors, who they wanted to introduce to aspects of science, engineering and technology through a series of hands-on laboratory experiences.

Initially, the course was offered as an elective and was open to any non-engineering student at the university. Genalo recalls teaching the course in a small room in the ECpE department that was shared with other classes, making it difficult to store all the equipment needed for the course. The course was eventually moved upon the completion of Howe Hall in 1999, giving the class more room to expand and store materials.

Genalo said that enrollment began to grow once the “student word-of-mouth advertising took hold.” Enrollment grew to the point where the class started being offered in both the fall and spring semesters, with 20 or more students enrolled each semester. Students were eventually required to take the introductory education courses before being permitted to enroll in Toying with Technology℠.

Today, the course is required for elementary education majors who take a math endorsement or a technology minor, which Genalo said has made enrollment grow even more. Two sections of the course are now offered each semester with 30 students in each section, and even more on a waiting list hoping to hear if a spot opens up for them.

The enrollment growth has been the course’s biggest change since its inception, Genalo said.

“The College of Engineering has been very supportive, providing a room, operating funds, and salary for a lecturer to teach the second section,” Genalo said.

Genalo hires a mixture of elementary education and engineering students to serve as teaching assistants for the class. The elementary education majors have taken the course as students, whereas the engineering students come in to assist with the technical and programming aspects of the course.

Elizabeth Larscheid, a senior in elementary education, decided that of the classes she could take for her math endorsement, Toying with Technology℠ sounded like it would be the most engaging and beneficial for her future career. She now works as a TA, which has been a great experience, though the transition from student to teacher was awkward at first. She said her favorite project, both as a student and TA, is the LEGO® egg drop, where students have to design a robot that will take an egg from the top of a table and place it on the floor below without breaking it.

“It was the first ‘real’ project we did in the class,” Larscheid said. “Seeing the innovation that goes into completing this project is always a lot of fun.”

Genalo said one of the most rewarding things about teaching the course is watching these future educators like Larscheid become more confident in their engineering knowledge as the semester progresses.

“[It’s seeing] the ‘small’ victories in each day’s work as a future elementary teacher, trepidatious to be in an engineering class at first, succeeds on some project and reacts like a football player scoring the winning touchdown,” he said.

Genalo said that many of his most memorable moments have come from the many students who overcame their anxieties about engineering and now teach engineering lessons in schools in Iowa and around the country. Former students occasionally contact him to get lessons they remember doing in his class that they would like to bring to their own classrooms or have the outreach program come to their schools.

Building robots is one favorite project of TAs and students, both at the college and elementary school levels. This fall, students at United Community Elementary School in Boone, IA worked with ISU students to build and program a robot that could dance to a 30-second song clip of their choosing.

“I enjoy programming myself, but it is so crazy to see these elementary school-aged kids completely understanding how to build and code a robot,” said Sierra Lucht, a sophomore in computer engineering and TA for the course. “It just blows my mind how fast they catch on to these things.”

Joshua Steffensmeier, a senior in computer engineering and TA, also enjoys the egg drop and robot building because it is fun to see students given the opportunity to look at a problem from an engineering perspective and come up with their own solution.

All of the TAs enjoy participating in the outreach activities at local elementary schools, finding them both practical and rewarding. The engineering students enjoy seeing how excited the kids get to design and build a robot, and how quickly they grasp the concepts of computer programming. Serving as a TA allows them to gain leadership and communication skills that will serve them well in their future engineering careers.

“Knowing how to do something well is worthless if you cannot share it with others,” Lucht noted of the importance of communication in engineering.

The outreach is an opportunity to get hands-on experience and practice their skills in the classroom. Larscheid feels that working as a Toying with Technology℠ TA is an invaluable experience for her, as she hopes to create a hands-on environment in her future classroom that is similar to the one created through the outreach experiences. For Alex McGinnis, a senior in elementary education, the experience has given her new ways to incorporate engineering concepts into her classroom.

“I look forward to implementing similar projects in my own classroom in order to expose my students to engineering,” said McGinnis.

All of the TAs, regardless of major, hope to inspire and encourage excitement among students about STEM fields.

“I hope to continue to work at this position and help teach more students about programming and engineering,” said Lucht. “These are vastly expanding fields, and we need youth to be interested in them.”

As the program goes into the future, Genalo hopes it will continue to draw increased attention to STEM subjects in K-12 schools. He notes that the country is just now starting to include engineering in K-12 curriculum standards, 20 years after he began Toying with Technology℠.

But the students of Toying with Technology℠ are not the only vehicles of its legacy. Genalo hopes new faculty members will become involved to carry the program into the future. Dr. Benjamin Ahn, an aerospace engineering professor who has a Ph.D. in engineering education, is already working with Genalo to become involved in the program. The two are working with the School of Education to develop a STEM endorsement, which may mean adding another engineering course to the curriculum likely focusing on design for elementary education majors.

“I have to develop a succession plan for the program,” Genalo said.

With the foundation Genalo has in place and his plans for the future, Toying with Technology℠ will continue to inspire students and educators for years to come.