December 7, 2012

Texas A&M Helps “Engineer” The Educational Pipeline In Texas With Innovative Outreach Programs

Among the most effective ways for Texas A&M University to help build the educational pipeline in Texas is through outreach, which is especially critical in the high need STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math).

One proponent of the outreach and recruitment model is Joseph Morgan, professor of engineering technology and director of the Mobile Integrated Solutions Laboratory ESET (electronic systems engineering technology) program. Morgan noticed that over the last few years the number of undergraduate students in electrical and mechanical engineering and computer science was in decline.

“We all knew we had a national and state need for professionals who were proficient in the STEM fields and that we weren’t training enough of them,” says Morgan.

“We realized that it was imperative to do more outreach at the high school level,” Morgan adds.  “In this department, we wanted to engage students in the world of electronics and software development so they would be prepared to meet the complex technical challenges of society and ultimately make a real contribution to the state of Texas and beyond.”

Jay Porter, professor of engineering technology and program director for ESET, agrees. “All of us recognize that students need to see the value in being able to produce things, be innovative and build products in the United States – this is a national need that must be met.”

Jay Porter

Jay Porter

Four years ago, students in the electronic systems program (formerly known as electronics and telecommunications) came up with the phrase: “There is a crisis at Texas A&M and we’re it.” But as Morgan explains, “The phrase is ironic; because crisis was spelled ‘krisys,’ and referred to the code name for the overwhelmingly successful robotics workshop that was developed by the undergraduate students.”

In a Krisys Robotics Workshop, students are divided into teams of four (three high school students paired with a sophomore engineering student) and within a week, not only build and assemble a small three-wheeled “robot/vehicle” but then populate the control/ driver circuit board, install it on the mechanical robot and design the program that allows the vehicle to navigate and race on a circuitous path. As daunting as that sounds, the workshops not only inspire and motivate the student team members, but the racing competition that caps the experience brings out the competitive spirit of all participants.

“What’s really exciting about Krisys,” says Porter, “is that we discovered that when college sophomores are mentoring high school students, those high school students not only learn more, but also say to themselves: ‘Hey, in two or three years I can be YOU!’ And that epitomizes how we think outreach and recruiting should be done. The challenge, of course, is to reach these kids even earlier in the education pipeline — in grade school and middle school — so they take the right courses to prepare for a STEM major.”

Krisys Workshops have become a focal point for a variety of outstanding outreach programs across campus, including the College of Education and Human Development’s Youth Adventure Program; the Women Exploring Engineering Summer Camp; the E-12 Summer Camp program targeting twelve Texas high schools based on demographics, TEA performance ratings and other criteria; The Summer Transfer Engineering Workshops (STEW) aimed at community college students and others.

Joseph Morgan

Joseph Morgan

These programs have been responsible for helping the university attract more students to engineering, especially talented, high-performing minority and female students.

“In addition to providing real value to the outreach and recruiting efforts of the College of Engineering, the Krisys workshops have spawned innovation and entrepreneurship, which is really what the curriculum in electronic systems is built on,” says Porter.

“In our product innovation and development initiative, our students come together to design educational products for middle and high school students. Currently, they have sold Krisys kits to three high schools; our hope is that by making programs like these available to Texas school districts, we’ll be improving the number and quality of the students who enroll in the STEM fields at Texas A&M,” Porter states.

Based on the success of the Krisys robot workshops, the electronic systems program responded to two NASA solicitations that focused on outreach and recruiting.

The first proposal that was funded called for Morgan and Wei Zhan, associate professor in ESET and co-principal investigator, to develop and deliver a ten-week workshop to students in three different high schools.  The project is part of the NASA HUNCH (High Schools United with NASA for the Creation of Hardware) program.  Texas A&M teamed with the Project Management Institute (PMI) Clear Lake-Galveston chapter to develop the curriculum and then deliver it to the six HUNCH project teams at Conroe, Cy-Ranch, and Cy-Woods High Schools.

Matt Leonard, Texas A&M class of 1986 and a senior project manager with NASA has been a major catalyst for Texas A&M/NASA interactions. Leonard states, “Unless Texas A&M gets great students, the industry isn’t interested.  The joint project is one way to reach out to the top high school students and get them interested in Texas A&M and engineering.”

In the second NASA-funded project, a team of four undergraduates are working on their ESET Capstone Design project to design, develop, deliver, and document a new wireless-based power monitoring and control system to be used in the Deep Space Habitat (DSH) mockup at NASA-JSC. As part of their project, the team members are mentoring high school students in the understanding and use of PMI-recommended project management tools and processes.

When the high schools students see that ESET undergraduates are using the same tools and processes to plan, manage, and control their projects, they become highly motivated to emulate the college students.   Again, college students directly interfacing with high school students has been a key element of this unique and highly successful outreach project sponsored by the NASA HUNCH program.

As a result of the TAMU/PMI-CLG/NASA collaboration, these high school students will have an opportunity to sit for the Certified Associate Project Manager examination administered by PMI which is the first step in seeking professional certification.  Both NASA and PMI are looking for ways to replicate this overall outreach concept at other universities on a regional or national level.

In yet another opportunity for STEM outreach and recruiting, the ESET program learned that Clear Springs High School had been selected to develop a microgravity plant growth chamber that might eventually fly on the International Space Station.  The high school team, under the direction of Ms. Allison Westover, needed technical assistance in the areas of electronic hardware and embedded software design and development.

When Porter and Morgan learned of this need through Leonard, they decided this would be an excellent opportunity for the program to give back to the community while adding a new aspect to its recruiting of top-notch high school students.

Eight sophomore students in Morgan’s digital design course have volunteered to mentor Ms. Westover’s team and help them successfully field and test their system, designed to fly as part of  NanoRacks’ NanoLab program.

“We hope to continue and expand our STEM outreach efforts through the support and partnering of organizations like NASA and PMI,” says Porter.

“What better way to recruit new students to Texas A&M than to let them interact and learn from current undergraduate students?” asks Porter. “Whether it is robotic workshops, project management tools and processes, or designing space-worthy lab projects, we have definitely found an innovative way to help build the STEM pipeline and improved our outreach and recruiting efforts for the university, the Dwight Look College of Engineering and our own electronic systems program.”

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Media Contact: Lynn Paris, News & Information Services at (979) 845-6746 or  Joseph Morgan or Jay Porter

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