Engineering an inspiring outreach program

Betty Lise Anderson
Professor, College of Engineering

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Betty Lise Anderson explains how a straightforward outreach project mushroomed into an award-winning program.

It’s kind of funny how I got into doing the K-12 Engineering Outreach program at the College of Engineering.

We realized that the diversity in engineering is not what it could be, and the department chair of electrical and computer engineering at that time, Professor Rob Lee, asked if I would be willing to do some kind of outreach in the high schools, particularly to underrepresented groups.

Sure, I said, imagining I would go to a couple physics classes and present the best PowerPoint presentation the world had ever seen.

I couldn’t even get in the door. Teachers said: “No, we don't really need any talking heads.”

Well, what do you need?

“Hands-on activities.”

Oh, drat. Even to develop one hands-on project took a lot of time. To get the cost down, to do something that can be done in a single class period and then create good-quality documentation including handouts — this was more than I bargained for. But engineers solve problems, so I came up with a plan.

I designed a course in which teams of engineering students had to apply their engineering know-how to create cool projects and the documentation. Engineering projects, mind you, not science experiments. Each team is assigned a school; they meet with the teacher to get feedback on their ideas; and at the end of the term they return to the school and lead the project.

We went to six schools that semester. My favorite project to come out of that first class was a working speaker, made out of cardboard, paper, a magnet, some wire and half an audio cable. It costs less than a dollar to produce because most of it is trash. You can plug it into your phone, and it really plays music. Yes, kids, you get to keep them!

Well, one thing led to another — or I should say one teacher talked to another — and we started getting invited to more and more high schools. Then middle schools started calling, and finally even elementary schools. Yikes! Get those Ohio State students to come up with projects a kindergartner can do! And, let’s mobilize our students, even those not in the class, to volunteer to go on these visits, be role models and show kids what engineering is all about.

One teacher told us her kids needed to hear about engineering, because in their community the only job prospects those boys could imagine were to be a professional football player or a drug dealer. Wow.

Hello, yes? You say you’re a library? Sure we can come. What day is good for you? Next thing you know, libraries across town are inviting our students.

After-school programs? Of course, when would be good? Scouts? 4H? Community science festival? Summer camp? You bet.

Oh, you run an after-school STEM club and want engineering activities every month? OK, we have enough projects now to do something new every time.

Professional development for teachers, you say? (Gulp.) Absolutely. How does Friday look?

Currently there are 250 ECE students on the volunteer list. They’ve collectively visited almost 90 schools and led hands-on activities with more than 13,000 K-12 students. Some of them are borrowing the materials and leading the projects in their hometowns. Four teams went to Colombia on a study abroad trip and led their projects in schools there. One brave student went to Guatemala for a summer and taught all of our projects to under-epresented Mayan children — and she did it in the Kaqchikel language.

The K-12 Engineering Outreach program has won several awards, the most precious of which is the university’s Outreach and Engagement Award, the highest outreach award Ohio State bestows. We were blown away. It was possible because of our great partnerships, helping and being helped by teachers from all over as well as various organizations within Ohio State, including Women in Engineering and the Minority Engineering Program.

Even more exciting, Ohio State is nominating the K-12 Engineering Outreach program for the (regional) Kellogg Foundation Community Engagement and Scholarship Award and the (national) C. Peter Magrath Community Engagement Scholarship Award.

You go, folks! Show the world what Buckeyes can do!

Show kids the possibilities.

About the author

Betty Lise Anderson
Betty Lise Anderson -
Professor, College of Engineering

Professor Betty Lise Anderson has been at The Ohio State University since 1990. Anderson started her career as a teacher at an experimental elementary school for two years and then worked in industry for nine years at Tektronix, Inc., C.S. Draper Labs and GTE Laboratories. Anderson is a fellow of the Society for Photo-Instrumentation Engineers and a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the Optical Society of America.


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