Re-engineering Engineering Education

Ethan Peritz at Jumpstart.Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are frequently cited as key fields for future success, yet high schools often struggle to provide diverse student bodies with a thorough grounding in, and understanding of, their essential elements.  This fall, students at Somerville High School’s Center for Career and Technical Education have a new curriculum for pre-engineering education thanks to a growing partnership with the School of Engineering’s Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO).

As a fellow in Tisch College’s Active Citizenship Summer (ACS): Project PERIS Somerville program, Ethan Peritz, A13, worked with the CEEO to develop a four-year pre-engineering curriculum for Somerville High School.

“The focus is on college prep, rather than a more traditional vocational training,” said Peritz.  “This is a population that in the past hasn’t been a target for these opportunities, and they really reflect Somerville – about half the students are Hispanic or Haitian Creole, about a quarter are ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) students.”

One of only eleven high schools in Massachusetts which integrates vocational and academic departments, 80%-85% of Somerville High School graduates go on to post-secondary education.

“We are very excited to be working with Somerville High School,” said Morgan Hynes, E01, G09, research assistant professor in the education department and education research program director for CEEO. “They are working hard to provide their students with the best education they can, and we believe we can help them build a successful high school engineering program with the unique expertise we have in K-12 engineering education.”

A music and psychology double-major, Peritz developed his interest in teaching and learning working with Jumpstart, housed at Tufts by Tisch College.  Recruited to be a team leader, Peritz places high values on his experiences mentoring kids at a pre-school serving low-income areas.

“It’s been one of the best parts of college,” he said.

That interest in education gained a technology focus when Peritz worked with Marina Bers, former Tisch College Faculty Fellow and associate professor at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development, on LEGO robotics projects at PS 185, The Early Childhood Discovery and Design Magnet School in Harlem.

“There was a lot of learning on the job and adapting for the population,” said Peritz, good practice for developing the pre-engineering curriculum.

Through CEEO’s Preparing Engineers To Educate (PETE) project, funded by the National Science Foundation, Peritz spent his summer researching pedagogical strategies, gathering materials, and helping to develop projects and lessons.

“Ethan’s really done an amazing job preparing the curriculum,” said Hynes.  “He has considered the needs of the school, teachers, and students in creating a dynamic, research-based curriculum that attempts to engage a wide range of learners.”

“It’s a four-year track, and each year builds on the skills of the previous one and introduces new concepts,” said Peritz.

“We start with a ‘paper engineering’ project – challenging students to build a chair out of cardboard that can hold at least 150 pounds. This introduces basic engineering terms and process.  There’s also a computer science emphasis – learning about syntax and sequence, and how databases are structured, leading to more complex projects, like designing a workspace for the 21st century,” he explained.

“The second year is built around service learning, based on the EPICS (Engineering Projects in Community Service) program at Purdue.  Students are paired with a partner organization, identify a need the organization has, and engineer for that need.  They work in groups of four to six; the focus is collaboration and the real-world contexts of engineering.”

“The third year is an intensive series of four projects, in smaller three or four person teams, each team working through the complete engineering process.  Those projects emphasize building and construction problems, like the challenges of insulation, and introduce tools and techniques like constructing models to scale.”

“The final year is a capstone project that each student develops, with a series of learning modules and reflections.  There’s a focus on accountability, meeting deadlines, and communications, as students make formal and informal presentations about their work.  It charges them to think critically.”

Guided by the latest research in engineering education, the program negotiates the demands of a contemporary public school as well.

“The pre-engineering track is integrated into the standard curriculum,” said Peritz.  “It looks forward to the Engineering MCAS.”

Looking beyond his graduation this spring, Peritz is committed to teaching and learning, and is contemplating both Boston Teacher Residency and pursuing graduate studies in education, such as the new Master’s of Art in Teaching (MAT) Engineering program at Tufts.

“Ethan will make an amazing teacher,” said Hynes.  “He’s already been offered a job to teach in Somerville by the assistant superintendent himself.”

Looking back at his time at Tufts, Peritz recognizes the progress that’s been made.

“There’s a new connection between Tisch College and the School of Engineering,” he said.  “It’s a partnership that should last.”

Originally published October 2012