Schulich School of Engineering Education Outreach Team

2017 Winner: Excellence In Science And Technology Public Awareness

University Program Makes Engineering Concepts Exciting for Young People

As the world moves to an increasingly digital space of interconnectivity and innovation, coding and computer engineering facilitates that transformation. The engineers of tomorrow will improve society through digital advancements.

But these future engineers must be inspired to walk that road. At the University of Calgary, the Schulich Engineering Education Outreach team is doing just that. The team designs curriculums for kindergarten to Grade 9 students and develops workshops for high school students.

The team is composed of Schulich School of Engineering faculty members Dr. Laleh Behjat, Dr. Milana Trifkovic, Dr. Mohammad Moshirpour, and graduate students Emily Marasco and Stephanie Hladik.

Beyond just math and science

Dr. Behjat explains their K-6 programs teach coding and engineering and show how math and science can be used to design cool artistic things. Relating engineering principles to subjects the students are already interested in has shown to help engage students and generate excitement about the field.

Behjat explains, “Some of the initiatives have involved using the expertise and enthusiasm of the undergraduate students to show high school and junior high students what a great profession engineering is and how many good things science and engineering can do for society.”

Through their programs, Behjat says they found students were more interested in math and science projects. Behjat adds, “A student came to me at the end of a two-hour physics and math session and told me this was the most fun he has ever had in his life! That was pretty fulfilling.”

Not only are the students enjoying working with math and science concepts, but their perceptions about the field have also changed. Behjat says, “Before we did this activity, we did a study on the students’ perception of gender biases. Students had a very high bias against women in science: they thought boys were better in math and science than girls. We showed them that by doing these projects and by showing them good female role models, in a fun way, we can actually change their perceptions”

Behjat’s motivation for her outreach work comes from her belief in the tremendous benefits of engineering. “My passion for outreach is because I know this is one of the ways we can contribute the best to society and make society a much better place for people to live. This is one of the things I want to show the younger generation.”

Different kinds of engineers

The team utilizes the expertise of their graduate students to create these engaging programs. Stephanie Hladik is a Masters student at the Schulich School of Engineering and has been highly involved in teaching coding and computational thinking to K-6 students.

“Coding isn’t just about typing on a computer screen,” Hladik says. There are building blocks behind it such as the concept of sequences, doing things in order, or loops where things repeat. Those are things that can be taught without any digital technology whatsoever.” Hladik shows the students that these concepts aren’t reserved for computers, but can also be applied to seemingly unrelated subjects like art, dance or story writing.

The Outreach team discovered that their students disagreed more with the statement that engineering is boring and agreed that coding can be creative and tie to other subjects they are interested in.

Some studies show that students lose interest in STEM subjects as early as Grade 4 and the team is determined to change that. “Many of (the students) thought they could design cool things with coding,” Hladik says, “and these are very young students, grades one to three. If we can get them interested in that early, it paves the way for them to continue along that path of thinking.”

Fostering engineering excitement

Support for the team has come from both the University of Calgary and industry supporters such as Imperial Oil and Google. Mohammed Moshirpour, instructor at the Schulich School of Engineering, says most recently the team ran a Google-funded program called Google Ignite. The funding allowed the team to host programming workshops for high school students with the help of undergraduate student mentors.

“The workshops were really fun,” Moshirpour says. “We matched up to three high school students with one university student and they were able to go from not knowing any programming at all to building games with a language called Processing.”

Moshirpour explains, “I think they were amazed and we were amazed. The students were super motivated. Towards the end of the session, we had a difficult time asking the students to leave because they said, ‘Just one more thing; I want to ask you just one more thing.’”

The positivity wasn’t reserved for the high school students. Moshirpour adds, “The university students who were mentoring were also very excited. They went above and beyond to make this class a success and they developed really strong relationships with their mentees. As advisors, we were amazed at how fast the students were growing. It was an amazing experience!”

Behjat says the success of the Outreach team has been due in part to the attitude of Albertans.

“Alberta is a very unique place because people here actually have a can-do attitude,” she says. “I think the greatness of being in Alberta is the attitude of the people and the attitude of the companies here. People know that things can be done by a group of people willing to do the work.”