Texas middle and high school teachers learn how to teach engineering

By Hilary Collins

Dan Blier and Ryan Patton leaned over a table stacked with cardboard, building a life-size prosthetic leg. Using hollowed-out pens, wire and rubber bands, they worked to replicate the way an ankle turns, the way a knee bends.It's just one of the projects the teachers-turned-students worked on this week at Southern Methodist University as part of the Infinity Project, which aims to put engineering curriculum in middle and high schools.

"Friday we'll learn how to do rockets, which my kids will actually do, and another one is structures, [in] which my kids will learn how to build bridges," said Blier, a technical-education teacher at Downing Middle School in Flower Mound.

Patton, a tech-ed teacher at Austin Middle School in Irving, said the project-based learning will encourage his students to consider a career in the sciences.

For the first time, students in Texas public schools must have four years of science and math to graduate from high school under the recommended program. For the science requirement, seniors must have credits in biology, chemistry and physics, plus one science elective, such as anatomy or engineering.

More than 100 teachers, including from the Grapevine-Colleyville and Cleburne school districts, participated in the Infinity Project this summer.

Colin Yeilding, who will teach engineering to seniors in Cleburne this fall, attended training last week and can't wait to use the curriculum, which includes environmental and biomedical engineering.

"My students are interested in so many branches of engineering," Yeilding said. "If they go to college and they want to take one branch, they don't have to waste time taking a bunch of different classes. They'll know what they want to do."

The Infinity Project is the brainchild of Geoffrey Orsak, dean of SMU's Lyle School of Engineering.

"We thought, 'Well, why is it that engineering isn't a part of the K-through-12 educational experience?' The reality is that 10 years ago, people thought it was just too darn hard," Orsak said.

He says they're finding that it's quite the opposite.

Since 1999, when the Infinity Project was founded as a curriculum for high school seniors, it has slowly spread to younger and younger students, who understand and enjoy the course.

"Every summer since, we've trained teachers. We've impacted between 8,000 to 10,000 kids. We're in 37 states and five to six foreign countries," Associate Dean Tammy Richards said.

In 1999, Orsak assembled what he describes as a "dream team" of the nation's top engineers and educators to find a way to make engineering accessible to secondary students.

He said reaching students early is crucial.

"One of the really scary data points is if you're not tracked properly on math by the eighth grade, we can predict with very high probability what your likelihood is of going into engineering or science or medicine," Orsak said.

His dream is to see engineering take its place alongside English and history in middle and high schools.

"When you walk down the hallway, and a kid's got a backpack, they're going to have a biology book in there, an English book, a history book," Orsak said. "We will know engineering's for real when there's also an engineering book in that backpack."

The Infinity Project trains teachers in weeklong summer sessions, equipping them with a manual and a support system that's "almost like calling up Dell's hot line," Orsak said.

Jo Ann Bilderback, a teacher with the Infinity Project who will be teaching in Denison this fall, showed off a prosthetic leg that a previous group of teachers made. The toes were ornamented with pink polish, and a tattoo circled the ankle.

She said the curriculum gets students fired up about math and science, while stirring an interest in engineering that might never have been there otherwise.

"They're like, 'I have a reason to pay attention in math now,'" Bilderback said. "They get excited."