sadina_postcard_proof_000NORTHAMPTON, Mass.—Two Western Massachusetts higher education institutions are advancing a joint initiative aimed at igniting interest and curiosity about engineering among middle school students with an interactive website that uses stories to promote collaborative learning.

With a new $3 million, five-year National Science Foundation (NSF) award, Smith College and Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) plan to enhance and begin distributing their program, called “Talk to Me,” to after-school programs and other supplemental educational programs nationwide. The colleges began designing and testing the prototype two years ago with pilot funding from the NSF.

The need for engaging engineering curriculum tools became apparent after Massachusetts adopted a statewide framework for K-12 technology and engineering education in 2001—the first state in the nation to do so.

“Our society is becoming increasingly dependent on engineering and innovation,” said Glenn Ellis, Smith professor of engineering, who is spearheading the project with Alan Rudnitsky, Smith professor of education and child study and Beth McGinnis-Cavanaugh, STCC professor of physics and civil engineering technology. “Engaging, culturally diverse narratives can make engineering concepts accessible to all learners.”

The initial NSF funding enabled Smith and STCC to build a website based on a young adult novel, which is available as an e-book at the site. The story features Sadina Reyes, a 14-year-old girl who is searching desperately for proof that her mother is innocent of a crime. Sadina’s younger sister, Maddie, knows who really committed the crime but Maddie can’t talk.  Sadina teams up with her friends to find a way to help her sister communicate what she knows.  While reading the book and engaging in related online adventures, “Talk to Me” users learn about brainstorming, teamwork and communication—all elements of the engineering design process.

An early version of the “Talk to Me” website was field-tested in summer workshops with Springfield Public School teachers. Among the findings: more than 92 percent of the educators indicated that the story characters were more likely to engage students in engineering than what was currently available to them, according to the researchers.

“The program was designed to engage students who would not typically be engaged with this field,” said McGinnis-Cavanaugh. The partnership between Smith and STCC on this initiative has been an “incredible experience,” she said, allowing the program developers to create a high-quality tool for a diverse population.

“There is a dire lack of meaningful engineering education resources for middle-schoolers,” said McGinnis-Cavanaugh. “And the digital platform (the website) is students’ native environment now—this is the environment in which they are most comfortable and likely to engage.”

With the continued funding, the researchers plan to write a second e-book and create an imaginative online learning environment that includes:  interactive adventures introducing topics such as sustainability and bioengineering, games, video blogs, and forums for users to collaborate and improve ideas. The e-books also will be translated into Spanish and recorded as audio books to increase accessibility.

Ultimately, researchers envision the website to be connected to such sites as the National Science Digital Library, Boston Museum of Science and Great Science for Girls, among others.

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About Smith College

Smith educates women of promise for lives of distinction. One of the largest women’s colleges in the United States, and the first with an engineering program, Smith enrolls 2,600 students from nearly every state and 62 other countries. The mission of Smith’s Picker Engineering Program is threefold: To prepare undergraduates for leadership roles in the profession of engineering and society; to cultivate a community of scholars recognized for contributions to the advancement of engineering practice and pedagogy; and to promote engineering within the context of a liberal education and as a profession in service to humanity.

About Springfield Technical Community College

Founded in 1967, Springfield Technical Community College (STCC), is located on 35-acres of the Springfield Armory National Historic Site and is a major resource for the economic vitality of western Massachusetts. The only technical community college in the state, STCC, an Achieving the Dream Leader College, offers a variety of career programs including biotechnology, nursing, information technologies, dental hygiene, and engineering technologies. STCC’s highly regarded transfer programs in business, engineering, liberal arts, science and technology continue to provide the most economical option for students pursuing a four-year degree. With enrollment of over 9,000 day, evening, weekend, and online students, STCC is a vibrant campus rich in diversity.

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