Visualization prof heading STEM study in two colonias schools

Six Hispanic high school students residing in South Texas colonias — impoverished, relatively undeveloped villages on the U.S. side of the Texas-Mexico border — are learning engineering basics while creating kits for elementary school science experiments as part of a study led by Francis Quek, a professor of visualization at Texas A&M University.

In the two-year, $284,000 project funded by the National Science Foundation, students from Bruni High School, located approximately 40 miles east of Laredo, are customizing the engineering-based kits to correspond with the science curriculum at nearby Oilton Elementary School.

The kits contain science, technology, engineering, and math-based components including simple circuits made of LED lights and transistors. The kits are similar to those Quek used in a project augmenting a Bryan elementary school’s science and language arts curricula.

Both projects reflect the spirit of the maker movement, a recent phenomenon that joins individuals involved in engineering-oriented pursuits in a social environment that features prototyping, invention and creativity.

Before building the educational kits, the BHS students make a two-week visit to Texas A&M’s College Station campus for a workshop where they learn key aspects of making and manufacturing — developing, building and testing prototypes and creating purchasing and production schedules —from visualization and engineering faculty and students.

“We also familiarize the visiting students with the university environment, enticing them to pursue an engineering or visualization education here,” said Quek.

An Oilton Elementary teacher is joining the high school students at the Texas A&M workshop to learn how to use the kits in the classroom. Along with a variety of kit building tools and techniques, like 3-D printing, the participants learn introductory computer programming. After returning home, they will remain linked to the Texas A&M campus, receiving five hours a week of additional guidance via online video sessions with project members.

The project, Quek said, aims to shed light on mostly unexplored areas of “making” research and development.

“Few, if any, research efforts have put making into a supply chain management and manufacturing setting and extended the making experience by integrating the student-designed products into elementary school classrooms,” he said.

In the study, Quek and his research team will investigate making as a means of disseminating STEM knowledge to high school and elementary school students. They see if the kit making activity spurs the students’ interest in STEM careers and gauge the effectiveness of problem-based learning in training high school students.

Quek, the project’s principal investigator, is performing the study with collaborators Sharon Lynn Chu, assistant professor of visualization, Malini Natarajarathinam, associate professor of engineering technology and industry distribution, and Mathew Kuttolamadom, assistant professor of engineering technology and industry distribution.

posted December 7, 2016