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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University May 8, 2006 | Vol. 35 No. 33
WSE: Demystifying technology for high-schoolers

New program aims to show off field's creative character, career potential

By Greg Rienzi

Mindful of the waning national interest in the engineering professions — at a time when the need has never been greater, and technology is becoming more difficult to comprehend — the Whiting School this summer will roll out a unique pre-college program aimed at demystifying technology and showing off its creative character.

The Engineering Innovation program, which Hopkins will initially offer at three JHU campuses and five California universities, will allow high school sophomores, juniors and seniors to enroll in the college-level course What is Engineering? taught by Johns Hopkins or other university-accredited faculty.

The initiative is based upon a successful program the Whiting School developed five years ago for students in Montgomery County. The program was expanded last year to include students in Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

Engineering Innovation seeks to capture the imaginations of young students and introduce them to a wealth of academic and career opportunities in the worlds of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Marc Donohue, associate dean for research at the School of Engineering and director of the school's Center for Educational Outreach, said that the program is aimed at giving young students a better general understanding of engineering principles and technology.

Technology, he said, is not as transparent as it once was, when you could take something apart and figure out how it works — a traditional telephone vs. a cell phone, for example.

"Technology has advanced in such a way that it is not understandable to the common person, even those with advanced degrees," Donohue said. "Science and mathematics have become relatively divorced from everyday life, and too few people understand how things work anymore. The days of the 'shade tree mechanic,' when you could open up the hood and figure out what's wrong, are gone."

The participants in the program will spend four weeks learning the basics of engineering as they conduct hands-on laboratory experiments and complete assignments that range from building a better mousetrap to assembling a digital circuit that operates a robot.

The What is Engineering? course was designed for Johns Hopkins undergraduates by Michael Karweit, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the Whiting School, who will teach a section in the program. Students who complete the course will earn three undergraduate credits that can be applied to Johns Hopkins or perhaps another college or university.

Leigh Abts, deputy director of the School of Engineering's Center for Educational Outreach and coordinator of Engineering Innovation, said that the program is intended to introduce high school students to the field of engineering and also give them a leg up on their college careers.

"Most kids have heard about engineering as a career but don't really know what the field is all about," Abts said. "When you ask young students what they think engineering means, they'll often tell you, building bridges. They don't know just how multidisciplinary the field is and how creative and rewarding it can be. We're trying to generate interest in the field by letting them have some fun with design."

To date, nearly 180 students have applied to the program, which is still accepting applications. Almost 80 percent of the applications have come from minorities, primarily from inner-city high schools. The target enrollment is 200, with 18 students per class. Abts said that the declining number of engineering majors nationally has created a cause for concern among those in higher education, and that officials at the School of Engineering realized something needed to be done before the well of prospective engineers runs any drier.

"The actual number of engineers in this country has steadily been going down. And baby boomers like me will be retiring in the near future, and we expect a major decline in the next decade in the field of engineering," Abts said. It's been estimated that half of all working engineers will retire in the next 10 years. "We're trying to address the need by focusing on underrepresented groups, women and minorities and show them just how fun, viable and high-paying a career in engineering can be," he said.

This summer, courses will be offered at Johns Hopkins' Homewood, Montgomery County and Washington campuses. In addition, the program will be offered at the University of the Pacific; University of California, Santa Barbara; and California State University campuses at Fullerton, Long Beach and Channel Islands.

The California schools are all participants in the Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement program, known as MESA, which will help fund Engineering Innovation, along with a grant from the National Science Foundation and funds from T. Rowe Price, Bechtel Corp., the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute Foundation and various engineering societies and private donors.

Tuition and lab fees for the four-week nonresidential program are $1,700, and scholarships are available.

Abts said that the School of Engineering will expand the program next summer to offer a sequential three-course program for students in the 8th through 12th grades. The curriculum will include the Way Things Work, for 8th-grade students; the Evolution of Technology, for 9th-and 10th-grade students; and What is Engineering? for 11thand 12th-graders. Students also will be able to take advanced courses such as Introduction to Electrical and Computer Engineering and Thermal Design for Aerospace Engineering.

Most students, Abts said, will enroll in one course per summer.

The expectations are for the program to annually enroll 5,000 students nationwide in the next five years, and for courses to be offered at more locations and in more states. The 10-year goal is 20,000 students annually learning at 200 locations.

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