Engineering Starts at Home Program Opens Doors for Young Learners and Their Families

March 22, 2021

By Holly Hinson

Academic Counselor Annie Jones was familiar with traditional modes of educational outreach to young students to introduce them to STEM concepts and engineering. With her Student Outreach team of Speed School students, each semester they regularly interacted in person with three partnership schools, held Friday field trips to the Engineering Garage and participated in school Science Nights, among other things.

But when COVID-19 shut down those in-person opportunities, she knew her team needed to think outside the box in order to continue to provide student outreach safely during the pandemic. “We knew we needed to pivot to something different,” said Annie. “After brainstorming with the team, we thought, ‘Why not a video series?’” Engineering Starts at Home (ESAH) was born.

“I was lucky that all my Fall 2020 outreach team were returning students,” said Annie. “They are seasoned, adaptable, with ready-for-anything enthusiasm. We brainstormed activities that touch on the seven different engineering majors we have at Speed School. These activities are adapted from curriculum we use in our signature partnership visits, in our maker spaces at Science nights and field trips so it is curriculum we are used to working with,” she said.

The pre-recorded two to four-minute videos, targeted to elementary-age students, feature the introduction of a STEM concept illustrated by Speed School students through a hands-on activity. The leaders demonstrate an at-home family-oriented activity using simple household materials and talk about how the concept is important in at least one engineering discipline. The video series is accessible for upload from the website at any time. Currently, there are three activities on the website: a windmill activity, Rube Goldberg experiment and binary alphabet beads project.

“The concept is ‘Hey, engineering may seem like a big field and out of your grasp, but you can start at your home with everyday items,” said Annie. “The hands-on activities are designed to give you an ‘aha moment,’ and are concepts where kids – and adults- can see the application in daily life.”

With the Spring 2021 semester, the Engineering Starts at Home program created a new ESAH Passport that kids can complete to be entered into a drawing for a Speed School Summer Camp scholarship. “You may be at home, but you can ‘travel the world’ to visit these different engineering majors,” said Annie.

The Speed School students who apply to be on the Student Outreach Team are passionate about exposing younger kids to the STEM world, said Annie. “They know how powerful it is to pass that along, and it’s exciting to see them work with younger generations.”

Taylor Fisher, a senior Bioengineering major and student leader of the Outreach Team, has led activities for ESAH that are biology or chemistry-related. “I really like being able to not only show them experiments with everyday items, but tie it back to a project I’ve done in bioengineering. It helps them make the connection between what they’re doing at home and what we do as engineers,” she said.

For Taylor, working with the students is personal. “I come from a family that didn’t go to college, so I wasn’t exposed to engineering outside the classroom setting. I think a lot of kids are in the same boat as me. Seeing people who look like them in engineering fields, like the women on our team, not only exposes them to the concepts at a young age, but also gives them motivation and inspiration that they can do it too.”

Annie said feedback for the ESAH program has been positive. “People are engaged and like the ideas. Sometimes they’ll say, ‘I had no idea this was available. My kids love this. Thank you.”

Having the material presented by college students provides a unique opportunity for the grade-schoolers. “Seeing the young students working with concepts in a way never presented to them before is hugely beneficial,” said Annie. “Anytime you get something out of the ordinary as a kid, like another student teaching you, it increases your enthusiasm and gives you a chance to connect.”

Will the video series continue beyond the return from pandemic times to the “new normal?” “Doing this virtually has opened some doors for the future in cases where someone needs outreach support, and we don’t have the staff or we’re already booked, “said Annie. “The landscape is changing and adapting, and we will continue to deliver where it is needed and where the demand is.”