ASN’s remarkable impact of ‘Scientists and Engineers-in-the-Classroom’

Seeing eyes light up as eager Grade 3 students learn about material properties and engineering principles is what it’s all about for the Alberta Science Network’s Scientists and Engineers-in-the-Classroom program. John Whitbread, P. Eng, an electrical engineer at General Dynamics, made engineering fun and practical recently during a presentation to the young students at Calgary’s West Springs School. Alberta Science Network (ASN) was awarded the 2016 ASTech Excellence in Science and Technology Public Awareness Award.

From teaching the basics of the material properties of common building materials to testing the strongest shapes for a paper structure, Whitbread guided the class from what they knew to what they could do with their new knowledge.

“I always try to include a project that demands teamwork and creates some tension,” said Whitbread, “especially the potential of failure. As we know, failure is the greatest teacher and it creates opportunities to teach, especially on an individual level.”

Given the task to support a book 12-inches off the table using only paper and tape, the students jumped at the opportunity to use fundamental engineering principles of design and testing to create structures out of the flimsy paper. Just as in everyday engineering, sometimes through testing the designs needed to be changed.

As the students constructed their paper structures to support the weight of a textbook, a few students realized what they had planned on paper wasn’t going to work in practice. Despite the obstacles, the students were undeterred. From the paper that crumpled, new sturdier cylinder supports were formed.

Whitbread explained, “One of the biggest impacts I see is a change in willingness of students to try and a certain comfort with failing while the teachers learn to allow the students to fail gracefully.”

The key, for Whitbread, is to engage the students with enthusiasm, know when to move from discussion to the fun of building, and let the students and teacher support the guided presentation.

“Most importantly, bring the topic down to their level,” Whitbread added.

Whitbread said the most rewarding moment as a volunteer comes when he sees a student really enjoying the experience. Through the different ASN programs, over 65 000 students per year participated in hands-on learning with experts across the province.

“More than any organization I’ve worked with, ASN provides both the guidance and the freedom to create opportunities for those moments to happen. When a student turns to me and says, ‘I love this!’ or ‘this is the best day of school ever!’, I know I’m participating in something very worthwhile,” said Whitbread.

For the teachers, it is invaluable to have an expert from the field enter the classroom and demonstrate the real-world application of the lessons they teach. The goal of the ASN program is to make science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) both hands-on and expert driven.

The teachers said the expertise an engineer brings to the classroom provides the opportunity for engaging and authentic learning for both the teachers and the students, who are filled with questions and eager to further explore the concepts.

Thanks to the work of professional volunteers like Whitbread, ASN is helping inspire young minds to engage in STEM learning and appreciate careers in STEM.