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Steven Shooter, professor of mechanical engineering
at Bucknell, talks to Lewisburg middle school students Jan. 24.


LEWISBURG, Pa. -- Central Pennsylvania middle school students who could someday solve our greatest scientific mysteries or invent new technologies that make our lives better are discovering engineering and other sciences through a Bucknell University research project that encourages hands-on learning at an early age.

The study examines the influence that engineering dissection activities -- taking apart and putting back together "artifacts" -- have on middle school students and their interest in careers in science and engineering. "The hope is that more young students will become interested in these careers by being introduced to them earlier," said Steven Shooter, professor of mechanical engineering at Bucknell and the lead researcher on the project.

The 120 sixth-grade students at Donald H. Eichhorn Middle School in Lewisburg have been studying engineering, archeology, anthropology, and history for the past several weeks through the student-directed learning "WebQuest," which sets students in the year 3008 and, through a series of interactive projects, helps them learn about these various science and social science fields and their connections.

Science-related careers
"Students who are introduced to the potential and promise of science and engineering during middle school have a much greater inclination to pursue science-related careers in later years," said Shooter, adding that universities cannot keep up with the demand for new engineers.

The study is supported by the National Science Foundation as part of a $900,000 NSF Cyber Infrastructure Teams grant to explore new techniques for enhancing engineering education through cyber-supported product dissection. The project includes nine universities and 34 faculty members.

At Bucknell, Abe Feuerstein, chair of the education department, is assisting with the design of the career interest survey that will be given to the Lewisburg middle-schoolers and with interpretation of the data. Their sixth-grade social studies and technology teacher, Tris West, has worked with Bucknell faculty to develop the WebQuest curriculum.

Research tool
An inquiry-based, interactive Web site, WebQuest directs the student projects and serves as a research tool.

To combine the techniques of the various fields and emphasize their relationships, West directed his students to use global positioning systems (GPS) to find artifacts -- in this case staplers -- that were hidden behind the school. The students then "dissected" the staplers and rebuilt them. Based on that experience, the students were asked to compare and contrast their artifacts to others that could be found in an online repository and report on their findings.

"The best thing that can come out of this," West said, "is that these students will look at everyday objects differently, with open eyes, as artifacts of the world in which we live, and learn to appreciate the culture of others. Hopefully that will inspire them to want to learn more and maybe pursue careers in these important fields."

Product dissection
Product dissection has long been recognized as a powerful educational tool that uses disassembly, analysis, and assembly of artifacts or processes to teach engineering, Shooter said. The activities expose students to engineering concepts and vocabulary, inspire students through engagement in self-discovery learning environments, foster inquiry into engineering principles and theory, and encourage exploration of generation, redesign, and design processes, he added.

In addition, it provides an opportunity to make connections to other areas of study, including archeology, anthropology, and history, that help us tell the stories of our lives.

"Archeologists try to discover what artifacts say about societies and what happened to those societies and why," Shooter said. "And who creates those artifacts? Today, it's engineers."

Career interest survey
Changes in the students' interest in engineering as a result of participating in the WebQuest will be measured using an engineering career interest survey designed by Feuerstein for middle school students.

Shooter expects the survey will show an increased interest in engineering and science careers among the Lewisburg students. "This project has been a great opportunity for Bucknell to positively interact with the local school and community," Shooter said. "We have been really fortunate to work with Tris West, whose talents and enthusiasm have really made this a great success. But it's all really about the students, because they are our future."

The findings are expected to be presented at the American Society for Engineering Education conference in June.

Contact: Office of Communications

Posted Jan. 17, 2008
Updated Jan. 25, 2008