Science can be an incredibly powerful tool for good. Clean water, electricity, and modern medicine have been instrumental in lifting millions of people out of poverty and disease. Engineering is an integral piece of the puzzle; those advances could not exist without the pipes, grids, buildings, and other infrastructure that support them. By building roads, bridges, and schools, engineers open up countless new opportunities in developing areas.
Careers in science and engineering are ideal for young people who want to make a difference, and many do. In fact, millennials are generally more attracted than previous generations to finding meaning and purpose in their work, rather than simply climbing a corporate ladder. A full 85% of millennials want to work for a socially responsible or ethical company, according to a 2013 study conducted by Bentley University. 95% percent of millennials say that a company’s reputation matters to them, and 91% say a company’s social impact efforts are important when they’re considering who to work for. This is likely to be the case with Generation Z (today’s 9-21 year olds) as well, judging from emergingissues2’s YouTube video.
But are these students choosing STEM careers? Are they making the connection between science and philanthropy? Are we showing students how their work in STEM will impact real-life communities and people around the world?
Problem-solving is at the core of Project-Based Learning (PBL), where real-life challenges are tackled by students using hands-on methods. By taking on the roles of engineers, for example, students learn design processes within the context of specific, real-world design challenges. They begin to understand the relationships among STEM concepts and practices, and why that knowledge is important.
“Active Learning” is also crucial to effective learning, especially in a problem-solving field like engineering (just ask surfer-engineer Rex Moribe and real-estate entrepreneur Jake Lyman). Active learning-based curricula can help students ask and answer their own questions, and even to think in different ways.
But while these methods can help a concept “click” in a student’s mind, they don’t necessarily lead to a connection on an emotional level. Demonstrating the usefulness of knowledge is not always enough; showing how its application impacts their world in a positive way may be a better way of engaging this generation of students.
Focusing on real-life, socially-conscious learning projects within PBL is one way to make learning more meaningful. By designing classroom projects based on bringing clean water to a village, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, or otherwise making the world a better place, educators can humanize science and teach to students’ passions.
Duke University’s 2014 “Code for Good” event, for example, brought out over 500 students, 20% of whom were women. The students worked in teams to propose tech solutions addressing poverty and inequality, health and wellness, education and energy, and the environment. We will undoubtedly see this growing trend more as educators seek to put the power of real-life problem-solving into the hands of tomorrow’s STEM workforce.
Learning Without Borders
Students aren’t the only ones benefitting from project-based learning; field projects are even helping professional engineers learn new skills in new ways. Most engineers learned their trade through traditional educational methods. These office-dwellers spend most of their time at computers, where they solve design problems using math and sophisticated software. While these tools are essential to the discipline, fieldwork is giving some engineers a whole new perspective on the world.
Heard of Doctors Without Borders? You guessed it – there’s also an Engineers Without Borders (EWB) that gets philanthropic individuals out of the office and into the places where they’re needed most. EWB projects typically involve intensive fieldwork and collaboration with local communities in underdeveloped areas.
The realities on the ground, the needs of the community, ongoing maintenance requirements, and other considerations present unique challenges that help engineers learn to think about design problems in new ways. They also develop important teamwork and leadership skills that can advance their careers. Both STEM students and STEM educators participate in the program.
Drs. Philip and Pauline Johnson (husband and wife engineering professors at the University of Alabama and co-sponsors of EWB) noticed that their engineering students were naive about global engineering. Most of their students have never traveled outside the United States. When they do travel, it’s usually to well-developed, tourist destinations. Programs like EWB offer engineering students crucial real-world experience. Explains Dr. Johnson in an interview for University of Alabama’s Engineering blog, “There are a lot of places in the world that are much, much, different from the United States. As an educator who routinely talks to students about sustainable engineering projects, I know that unless they go to a third-world country they don’t fully understand what that means.”
Constructing a Better Classroom Experience
Want to share the excitement and gratification of community development with your class? Real-world problems and project-based learning are at the heart of Engineering the Future™ (curriculum designed to give students a solid foundation in engineering practices).
In addition to using the right inquiry-based engineering curriculum, EWB’s website has an arsenal of resources for the public that can be very helpful for educators. Its resource library offers over 100 free design guides, technical project resources, and reference documents for a variety of development projects. Many of the documents have detailed instructions and ideas teachers can use when creating lessons. With a little creativity you can use them to teach your students about rainwater harvesting, solar energy system design, or building a water treatment facility.
You can also gain some insights on project and group management from EWB’s page on Three Strategies for Project Team Success. EWB’s blog is another excellent resource. It offers great posts on what it’s like to be in the field all over the world, and profiles participating engineers. EWB’s resources can be woven into engineering curriculum, or used as the basis of new units or exercises.
Changing the World, One Student at a Time
Project-based learning and social causes are a match made in heaven; both are based on finding solutions to challenges, and both integrate into STEM education quite well. Today’s students are the most technology-saavy people the world has seen. They’re also rightfully concerned about the state of the planet, inequality, and their own futures. Careers in engineering and other STEM fields can be great ways to combine their interests. Tweaking our PBL to focus on the issues young people really care about opens up new opportunities for engagement, potentially encouraging kids to take up the gauntlet. By doing so, we may just end up engineering a generation of problem solvers.
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