First-year engineering students gain unique experience through First-Year Honors Mentors Project

The desire to expand their reach and introduce another generation to engineering led a few first-year engineering students to pursue an interesting research project.

The Iowa State University Honors Program runs the First-Year Honors Mentors Project. Participants are brought into an ISU faculty member’s research team where they work on research projects over the spring semester. Dr. Larry Genalo, University Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, paired 14 of these first-year honors students with teams of elementary education students in his Toying with Technology™ course.

The first-year students worked with their respective teams to develop engineering unit plans. Each unit is a series of five lesson plans on a unified topic that includes engineering. The Honors students helped their elementary education partners devise these units by conducting research about the engineering involved in their given topic.

First-year mechanical engineering student Rebecca Filak helped her group develop a unit based around the five senses. Filak researched activities, projects, and ideas of how to incorporate engineering concepts into a lesson plan suitable for second graders.

“Our unit plan taught the students about the five senses and introduced technology that assists people with impaired senses,” Filak said. “We taught the engineering design process and had students practice that process through a project where they were asked to create a modification to an existing technology or create an entirely new technology that assists people with impaired senses.”

Evan Hundley and Logan Gross, first-year students in industrial engineering and aerospace engineering, chose this project because of the opportunity it presented to get engineering concepts into classrooms earlier in students’ educational careers.

“I think it’s important to include engineering in elementary education,” said Hundley. “Many people turn away from engineering because they don’t understand exactly what it is, and by implementing it when children are younger, we can help more people understand what engineering is.”

Gross cited his experience with the robotics program at Oskaloosa High School as a key part of why he decided to pursue engineering. He hoped that through this experience he could help future students get that same inspiration earlier in their education.

“I think I would have had a better understanding of what I was getting into as an engineer and would have worked more towards learning about physics and engineering at younger age if that exposure had been available to me,” Gross said.

For Gage Lochner, an aerospace engineering student, it was the prospect of working with non-engineers that intrigued him most, noting that this would be an experience not many engineering students have.

Filak saw the project as an opportunity to prepare for her future career as a project manager.

“I valued the idea of having experience with interdisciplinary communication,” she said. “I will need to communicate the same information in different levels of complexity and detail depending on with whom I am working. Therefore, working with the education majors offered me the opportunity to relate engineering concepts to someone outside of the engineering major.”

Like many students in the First-Year Honors Mentor Program, this was the first time aerospace engineering student Robert Zartman played a key role in another person’s project.

“I had never worked in a sort of consulting role before this project,” said Zartman. “I had something unique to do each week, which made the project challenging, but it also meant that it was always interesting and new.”

All of the first-year students enjoyed watching their elementary education teammates embrace a more scientific way of thinking. Many of the students did not really understand what engineering was at first, but as they delved deeper into their projects, the elementary education majors realized these engineering concepts were not as foreign as they perceived. Lochner said it was fascinating to watch their teammates learn something new.

The elementary education students were not the only ones gaining a new perspective. The first-year students said that learning about educational standards and all of the components that go into one day of lessons was eye-opening. Gross’s group focused on forces, gravity, and friction in a lesson for fourth graders. He said seeing the pieces come together and watching the students actually learn about the science involved through games and demonstrations was rewarding.

“At a younger age, you are kind of just in awe that there’s this force always applied to you, and being able to see it and visualize it through a game is very fun,” Gross said.

“We got quite a bit of freedom with this project, so it was fun to play around with it and be creative while also making sure it was educational,” Hundley added.

The faculty mentors on the project, Genalo and Aerospace Engineering Assistant Professor Benjamin Ahn, provided their mentees with lessons in communication, professionalism, and future success. Through collaborating with professors, peers, and students in other majors, Filak said she feels more prepared to embrace future academic endeavors and pursue her future career. For Matthew Kirpes, a first-year computer engineering student, seeing how his mentors researched topics and helped students succeed gave him insight into how to be a good mentor in the future.

Communication seemed to be one of the biggest challenges for the first-year students. Team projects bring together a lot of different personalities and working styles, and this was especially apparent between the first-years and the more seasoned students.

“My faculty mentor taught me to be patient,” Gross said. “Everyone has their own schedules, so be persistent and be on top of things, but still be patient. Eventually you’ll have the conversation you need to have.”

Coming from two different worlds, the elementary education students had to teach their engineering partners their jargon, and vice versa. All of the first-year students were interested in integrating engineering into the educational curriculum, but some had experience working in educational settings or knew of Common Core standards because one of their family members was a teacher. The engineers had their own communication issues, namely how to break down complex systems to someone who is unfamiliar with the topic.

Gross said that the communication struggles taught him that it is important to remember that not everyone will understand where you are coming from, so you have to tailor your communications to your target audience.

“Engineer to engineer, we use odd terms and whatnot, and sometimes you have to break that down,” he said. “[Working on this project] helped me learn better, because I can explain things at a more basic level.”

Seeing all of their research and planning pay off during the final presentation made all of the struggles worth it. Zartman hoped that he made the project easier for his teammates, with his contributions helping them to create and improve upon their lesson plans. Filak worried that sometimes her research would not be helpful to the team, but after seeing the finished product she was reassured that her efforts were favorably received.

For Hundley, it was amazing to see the transformation from an abstract idea into a concrete unit.

“We started with just a small idea, and seeing how it grew and expanded into a really cool project that students could actually do was rewarding,” Hundley said.

Working on these projects gave the first-year students insights and lessons that they will carry with them as they continue through their college careers. This being their first big independent project, many said the experience improved their abilities to conduct research on a larger scale and how to fit that research to meet team goals and expectations. The communication and project-management skills that went along with that research will also serve them well as they work to become engineers.

“I think this project has given me some insight into how much work teachers and professors do on a daily basis, and I’m much more appreciative of that now,” Hundley said. “I also think it helped me understand what makes engineering unique and I am more proud to be part of this profession now.”

“It has been an interesting break from my normal classes,” said Lochner. “It was fun and interesting work to do.”