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Wanted: Practicing Professionals as Digital Mentors

by Bruce M. Furino

“The failure to prepare K-12 students with the knowledge they need to make an informed choice about pursuing a career in a scientific or technical area requires significantly increased cooperation between science and engineering professionals and K-12 teachers and students.”

This quote is from an article titled “Engineering Education and the Science and Engineering Workforce,” written by David Wormley, dean of engineering at Pennsylvania State University and chair of the Engineering Dean’s Council, American Society for Engineering Education. He cites the important, unfulfilled role that practicing professionals, including engineers and scientists, could and should play in pre-college education programs.

Science teachers recognize the value of practicing professionals in the classroom, as witnessed in a survey released by Bayer Corporation and the National Science Teachers Association. Of the teachers who said that they had brought scientists into the classroom to work directly with students, 98 percent felt this exposure was critical. The investment of time and effort on the part of a practicing professional is minimal when compared to the potential, positive effects on one or more students and the teacher. The use of a computer and the Internet has dramatically helped individuals willing to volunteer their talents, as it reduces time and travel requirements while enabling practicing professionals to remain “connected” from their home, office or while on the road.

The Internet Science and Technology Fair

The University of Central Florida’s College of Engineering and Computer Science (UCF-CECS) understands and appreciates the contribution of practicing professionals to higher education as witnessed in the success of multiple undergraduate and graduate teaching and research programs. At the same time, our institution is keenly aware of the role engineers and scientists play in a technology-literate workforce and that our future is dependent on working with teachers to help students understand the same. Since 1996, UCF-CECS has hosted an annual event that enables practicing professionals to work online with pre-college teachers and teams of students. It is called the Internet Science and Technology Fair (ISTF).

Using only information technology tools, the ISTF challenges student teams to identify a local or national problem and research a technical solution from the list of National Critical Technologies. Teams must adhere to content guidelines that address national science content standards and must locate a practicing professional who is a subject matter expert and who becomes the team’s technical advisor. From October through February, participating student teams obtain information sources, analyze content, seek technical guidance from their mentors and innovate a technical solution. Their final research report is prepared in a Web site format and then is evaluated in preliminary and final rounds of judging. The National Medal of Technology Program at the U.S. Department of Commerce makes top team awards. The Hall of Fame shows what students in the past have accomplished.

Student Teams Need Professional Guidance

One of the most important aspects of a successful ISTF experience is the student team — technical advisor work relationship. Eighty-three percent of the teachers in the 2001-2002 ISTF competition felt that the involvement of the technical advisor in support of their student teams was a valuable to somewhat-valuable experience. In their final evaluations, 73 percent of the students explained that their on-line technical advisors provided information on useful Web sites, encouraged them to ask questions, helped them focus their project and explained why certain things would and would not work. Seventy-five percent of participating technical advisors believed they helped their teams to better understand the necessary steps one must take to find technological solutions to problems they will face in the future.

Unfortunately, 40 percent of the student teams in the 2001-2002 competition were unable to locate practicing professionals as online team technical advisors. Some teams documented that they had submitted more than 50 e-mails requesting technical guidance for their projects. Almost half of the teams that located technical advisors did so in November through January. This is disappointing because the intent of the ISTF Program is to help student teams explore engineering and science futures under the guidance of practicing professionals. Although students must still locate their own technical advisors, UCF-CECS will begin assisting in the process. In anticipation of a 25 - 33 percent enrollment increase in the upcoming 2003-2004 ISTF Competition, UCF-CECS is now working to develop a pool of practicing professionals.

In the 2002-2003 ISTF competition, 148 of the 214 teams completed final research projects at the end of February. They represented predominately middle and high schools from 12 states and two countries, with only four elementary teams participating. The table shows a sample of student team project counts by National Critical Technology category and sub-technology area.

Technical Advisor Role and Responsibilities

To better understand participation as an ISTF technical advisor, please visit the ISTF Technical Advisors page, where roles and responsibilities are clearly defined. The three most important forms of assistance that a technical advisor offers a student team are helping them to communicate with professionals, narrowing a project focus, and providing subject matter guidance.

When contacted to participate, most practicing professionals are initially concerned that they will be inundated with student e-mails. However, by the end of the competition, many technical advisors comment that there was not enough communication. Seventy-five percent of the technical advisors in the 2001-2002 competition indicated they would be interested in receiving periodic updates from their team(s), in addition to regular e-mail communication.

From a teacher’s perspective, students develop important communication skills, from learning how to ask the right question to presenting a particular point of view. Teachers in the 2001-2002 ISTF Program rated narrowing a student team’s project focus as almost as difficult as locating an appropriate technical advisor. Too often students focus on the big picture and are unable to scale down a project to one or two key contributing factors. Through years of experience, this becomes commonplace to many practicing professionals, and helping the students accomplish the same early in the project process is critical.

Once the students have narrowed their project focus, they begin searching for appropriate Internet and other digital information sources. Using the ISTF content guidelines, they develop a history of their technical application, predict limitations and benefits in terms of its impact on the problem they selected and propose new improvements or uses. Throughout the process of gathering information, the student teams should ask questions of their technical advisor to make sure they understand the relevance of what they have found to their projects. Unless frequent (one to two e-mails per week) communication is maintained, students will make uninformed decisions, arrive at inaccurate conclusions and in general, waste valuable time.

A Call for Technical Advisors

UCF-CECS invites practicing professionals to participate as student team technical advisors in the 2003-2004 ISTF competition. From August through September, interested individuals are asked to provide contact and other general information. Professionals who do so will receive an e-mail inviting them to set up a technical advisor account where they will profile their expertise using the same National Critical Technologies list on which students base their projects. By the end of September, UCF-CECS will publish the 2003-2004 ISTF fall Web site, where teachers and student teams will be able to view a pool of technical experts for the first time.

From October through November, students, with their teacher’s approval, will propose their projects to profiled engineers and scientists. Participating professionals will have the option of selecting or rejecting one or more projects of interest. Furthermore, interested persons may share ISTF information with principals and science and technology teachers in local schools. This will enable practicing professionals to participate as ISTF technical advisors in their communities.

The “Payoff”

Technical advisors may support one or more high school teams in grades 10-12, middle school teams in grades 6-9, and/or elementary teams in grades 3-5. To appreciate what is possible from an elementary student team, please visit this page to view a final project from a school in Texas. Student team members focused on an autonomous robotic application for removing litter from their school grounds.

The teacher who guided these students explained the importance of working as a team and the value of participating professionals.

At the beginning of the school year, fourth graders completed an invention unit. Studying about inventors sometimes leaves the impression that many great inventors and creative people work mostly alone. We think that this project shows them another view of people working together to accomplish great things. We especially appreciate the willingness of our experts to contribute their time and their talents to enhance the work of our students. It made the children feel really good that so many professionals cared about their work and were willing to engage in and comment on their project.

Interested professionals are especially encouraged to support middle and elementary student teams. These young minds are at a critical age, as they are making decisions about their futures. The minutes an engineer or scientist spends each week may help one or more students choose a technical career for a lifetime.

UCF-CECS is committed to helping pre-college students explore engineering and science futures, but our institution is unable to accomplish this alone. We have limited resources to support the ISTF, and all we accomplish depends on our ability to partner with industry, government, academic, technical and professional organizations. This is an important opportunity to get involved in pre-college science, engineering and technology education. Our institution challenges interested persons to become ISTF technical advisors and help students locally, nationally or in any country (where a school has English-speaking capabilities) to participate in our 2003-2004 ISTF competition.

For additional information, please contact Bruce Furino. //

Copyright 2003, ASTM

Bruce M. Furino is the director of the Office of Special Programs at the University of Central Florida’s College of Engineering and Computer Science. His office is responsible for developing and administering technology literacy programs for pre-college students. Furino was the grant development manager for UCF’s Division of Sponsored Research, and is a past president of the Grant Professionals Network of Orange County, and a past city commissioner for Altamonte Springs.