The number of U. S. graduates in engineering significantly lags behind current levels in European and Asian universities. In addition, women and minority groups continue to be underrepresented in engineering programs nationwide. The reversal of these trends hinges on the development of stimulating and relevant outreach activities which introduce grade-, middle-, and high-school students to engineering concepts and applications. Towards this end, I have developed a low-level introductory course focused on familiar, real-world technology and its societal impacts and benefits. As depicted in Figure 1, I have worked in the context of two Sally Ride Festivals and the FEMMES (Females Excelling More in Math Engineering and Science); program here at Duke University. The Sally Ride Festivals and FEMMES program encourage grade and middle school girls to participate in science- and engineering-oriented activities in the hope of encouraging them to pursue technical studies in the future. News article on the FEMMES event at Duke can be found here.
In these programs which I developed, each team of students was given a wooden box containing a Styrofoam block with an unknown shape. On one end of the box were nine holes through which a wooden dowel could be inserted until it touched the Styrofoam block. On the other end of the box was access to the rim of a turntable upon which the Styrofoam block was mounted. The students were introduced to the basic concepts of ultrasound imaging, and told that ultrasound measurements correspond to the distance ultrasonic waves needed to travel to reach the underlying object. Analogously, the teams of students were to infer the shape of their Styrofoam block by measuring the distance they could insert their dowel into the box at different rotations of the turntable and then plotting their measurements. Most groups were successful in discovering the shapes correctly, which increased their excitement and enthusiasm.