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Interview: Cultivating Engineers in K-12

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The anticipated dearth of engineering talent in the future has educators and trade groups thinking past the current workforce and into the K-12 ranks, where aspiring engineers are hoping to choose the "right" career. Unfortunately, without exposure to the engineering field, many of those students will overlook the opportunity and wind up in other careers.

Samantha Murray is determined to change that. As the K-12 coordinator for the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) in Washington, DC, Murray has spent the last few months studying key trends and issues in engineering education. Here, this former middle school teacher shares what she's learned since coming onboard with the ASEE in December.

THE Journal: What trends are you seeing right now in engineering education?

Samantha Murray: For starters, we're concerned about how engineering's message is being conveyed. We often hear young students say, "Well I would be an engineer, but I don't know what that is, or I don't know what engineers do." Students are confused about the career, and we're afraid that confusion will push them away. So, the message about engineering is a big focus for us and other interested groups right now. Another key trend is preparation, or making sure that students are prepared with the appropriate math and science backgrounds to be retained in an engineering program once they get into college. Finally, at the college level, student retention in those programs is another big issue that needs to be addressed.

THE Journal: Are you seeing any improvements when it comes to delivering the right message?

Murray: There is definitely progress being made, although I think it's too soon to really know just how well our efforts are working. That's what a lot of folks like myself, plus advocacy groups and coalitions, are trying to zero in on: whether there has been any movement and improvement in that realm. We are certainly making the effort to ensure that the curriculum is vigorous for students, that they're receiving the appropriate sequence of math and science and that they are properly prepared in terms of knowing about the engineering career option.

THE Journal: Are we going to be able to replace the engineers who will be retiring soon?

Murray: That's a pretty big concern right now. In fact, it's one of the motivators for working really hard at the K-12 level to engage students at a young age about becoming engineers. At this point, I'm not sure if the situation has improved, and if we will be properly prepared when the time comes to actually replace those retiring professionals.

THE Journal: What is the ASEE doing to help entice students to consider engineering as a vocation?

Murray: We have a virtual, K-12 engineering center, a new Web site (set to launch in September), and a print magazine called Engineering, Go For It! About 1.2 million copies of the magazine reach teachers and students throughout the year. It's a 64-page, widely read publication that's geared toward high school students and getting them in the mindset of being able to think about engineering as a possibility once they get into college.

Through our Web site, we're targeting students with a similar message with the intention of getting middle-school students thinking about careers in engineering. We're trying to create a natural progression by teaching younger students--through the Web site--about different engineering disciplines and what it really takes to do well in school and prepare for college. We also use the Web to get them thinking about how engineering impacts all aspects of their lives.

THE Journal: Are you also working with educators?

Murray: Absolutely. We have an annual K-12 workshop that's geared toward teachers, knowing that if we can get through to them that they'll bring the knowledge back to their classrooms and share it with their students. They come out of the workshop better equipped to incorporate engineering into their curriculum, and to get middle-school students thinking about their careers long before it comes time to select a major. The next workshop will be held in June in Austin, TX, and will be a day-long event designed to introduce teachers and engineering educators from across the country to innovative, effective engineering education resources designed for the K-12 classroom.

We also publish an e-newsletter that is sent to about 2,000 teachers nationwide. We're looking to increase that subscriber base substantially this year in an effort to get more youngsters and their teachers thinking about careers in engineering. Finally, we distribute Why K-12 Engineering?, a free publication that helps teachers bring engineering into their K-12 classrooms.

THE Journal: What's ahead for engineering education?

Murray: Well, the concept itself is huge right now and a lot of people are talking about it. Several high-profile reports that were released last year (including a report on engineering education from the Carnegie Foundation) highlighted the growing need for workers with science, technology and engineering backgrounds. Engineering fits in very well with science and technology at the K-12 level, where we can start early working with students and getting everyone involved with engineering ... not just wondering about it.

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