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NSF awards FIU, partners $4M to expand national high school engineering program

NSF awards FIU, partners $4M to expand national high school engineering program

September 16, 2021 at 12:00pm

With a nearly $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), FIU’s College of Engineering and Computing (CEC) and partner institutions are expanding a first-of-its-kind national high school engineering course.

The program, titled Engineering For US All (e4usa), began in 2018 as a pilot to test the effectiveness of a standardized engineering curriculum across multiple states for the purpose of developing an eventual pathway for high school students to earn college credits. It provides an educational curriculum for high school students to learn and demonstrate engineering principles, skills and practices, while training their educators on how to teach the specialized coursework. Students are recruited from public, independent and parochial schools in rural, suburban and urban settings.

The program is in partnership with the University of Maryland, Arizona State University, Morgan State University and Virginia Tech. During its initial three-year pilot stage, researchers refined a curriculum developed by the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) and the College Board. Presently, the program’s curriculum integrates engineering principles and a student design project and aligns to the Next Generation Science Standards for K–12 education. 

Assistant professor of engineering education and SUCCEED undergraduate program director Bruk Berhane has been leading the effort at FIU’s CEC since his transition to FIU in 2019.

“Exposure and access to engineering can truly level the playing field for the next generation of students and professionals. Engineering careers offer direct entry into an increasingly shrinking middle class,” Berhane said. “Even if e4usa students eventually choose other majors in college or career pathways, the exposure to engineering teaches processes and ways of thinking that are very valuable.”

Today, the e4usa program has more than 50 high school students participating through FIU. Nationally, e4usa is working with 36 high schools and more than 2,000 students in 12 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The new NSF funding will help extend e4usa’s reach to include approximately 5,000 students and 50 teachers nationwide.

“This is a program that fills me with pride and hope because it builds toward a future where engineering training is available to all. When we partner with schools that have the benefit of a diverse student body, we are reaching those who have previously been underrepresented in engineering and, in many cases, have been unable to access engineering courses at all,” said Darryll J. Pines, president of the University of Maryland and the program’s principal investigator. “I know firsthand the life-changing benefit of a quality engineering education, and I am proud that our university and Engineering for US All will continue breaking down barriers for future students.”

Students in the program explore engineering in society, develop professional skills and engage in community-focused engineering design experiences — all aimed at helping them see themselves as engineers. However, one of e4usa's hallmarks is that the curriculum assumes that not all program participants will pursue a career in engineering but recognizes that all still benefit from being exposed to engineering thinking and skills.

From its inception, Vanderbilt University has supported the program by evaluating the curriculum, student learning and teacher training. Stacy Klein-Gardner, adjust professor of biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University and co-director and co-PI for e4usa, said: “Unlike some other current offerings for introductory engineering courses, e4usa has low barriers to entry and is less expensive to implement. Students need only be in Algebra I, and educators can learn to teach engineering, no matter their educational background.”

Additional collaborators include NASA Goddard, Project Lead the Way and the College Board.

"NSF helps build the nation’s future engineering workforce, and a key part of that is enabling more students to have access to and preparation for undergraduate engineering education," said Dawn Tilbury, assistant director of NSF’s Directorate for Engineering. "e4usa is helping to remove the mystery and democratizing the learning and practice of engineering."

The program groups high school teachers to form a network to create a broad learning community. An online platform offered through the program enables teachers to collaborate, learn from one another, and receive support by sharing teaching materials and challenges.

“One of the most important elements in student learning is the teacher,” Berhane said. “How we teach students design-based thinking cuts across science standards and other disciplines, which is why it is essential to effectively train teachers to introduce this way of thinking to their students and create a collaborative community for them.”

“As the No. 1 college in the U.S. for awarding bachelor’s degrees to Hispanic students and No. 6 in awarding bachelor’s degrees to African Americans according to the American Society for Engineering Association (ASEE), our participation in e4usa validates our commitment to preparing the next generation of highly trained engineering and computing professionals,” said John. L Volakis, dean of FIU’s College of Engineering and Computing. “I am thrilled that the program is that much closer to offering this amazing opportunity to all U.S. students.”