In experiment, it's ready, aim, inspire

Engineering: A class project is targeted to test skills and enliven a daunting field in need of recruits.

May 08, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

For one day, Engineering 101 - a notoriously dry and challenging course - resembled a carnival.

Assigned to use their knowledge of basic engineering to build catapults, students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County lugged their creations to the center of campus yesterday. They took turns seeing how far their contraptions could fire water balloons - and then tested for accuracy, with their professor as the target.

It was like the dunking booth at the county fair, only better. Professor Taryn Bayles was kind enough to rush into the line of balloons launched by machines that misfired.

For students, the competition offered more than the chance to soak their teacher. It gave them an opportunity to put into practice the engineering principles they've been learning.

"It adds a sense of realism," said Drew Lenhart, a freshman from Urbana whose team won the competition last semester with a toss of 130 feet. "This is getting the experience of being an engineer who's building something."

That's just the idea behind the project, say Bayles and UMBC Engineering Dean Shlomo Carmi. With the nation facing a shortage of engineers, and with engineering schools finding it difficult to recruit and retain students, it has become imperative to make the field seem relevant and fun.

"It has to be exciting and hands-on," said Carmi. "They don't want to just sit there and listen to a lecture. It has to be vivid."

Patrick J. Natale, executive director of the National Society of Professional Engineers, agreed. After a steep drop in the mid-1980s, he said, the number of engineering graduates has remained level even as the number of college graduates has shot up. Women and minorities are especially underrepresented.

The U.S. Department of Labor is projecting a nearly 20 percent increase in the number of engineering jobs that will need to be filled by 2008.

To close this gap, the profession is looking beyond engineering schools to spur interest in younger students before they get to college. Natale and other society members have visited elementary classrooms to give workshops using engineering concepts. Southern Methodist University recently won $800,000 in federal funds to create an institute that will promote engineering education from kindergarten up.

"Kids just don't see engineering as something that's relevant to their lives. Even though they have so much fun playing with video games or their cell phone, they don't see the connection," said Geoffrey Orsak, the institute's director.

UMBC is also looking to younger age groups to help enlarge its engineering programs, which it wants to expand from 1,700 to 1,900 undergraduates. The university recently won a $350,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to help middle schools incorporate engineering into math instruction. And it is encouraging high schools to develop courses that resemble UMBC's Engineering 101, as Eastern Technical High School in Essex has done.

What remains a major hurdle is engineering's reputation as a difficult subject. Bayles estimates that about a third of those who take Engineering 101 leave the major, often in fear of its calculus requirements.

Lenhart said that two-thirds of the students in his Chemistry 102 course, a requirement for engineering, failed the final.

The discipline's challenges were on clear display yesterday, as several teams struggled with catapults that broke or tossed their balloons weakly.

Tara Tosti, a sophomore from Baltimore whose team had trouble, said the class has shown her that she isn't much interested in building things and would be better off doing genetic engineering. "Torsion, compression, yield strengths ... I'm not into that," she said. "It takes a certain kind of person to be an engineer."

Others fared better. The best shot of the day belonged to the smallest catapult, built by Andrew Wilson of Catonsville and Chris Hartis of Baltimore. It succeeded thanks to its wheels and the cotton sling that swung the balloon. Their longest shot was 93 feet - and they nailed their teacher with a direct hit.

"She taught us how to break down the physics, how many pounds there are on each joint," said Wilson. "We learned how to apply the science."

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