Wheelchairs and Supershoes: Georgia Tech's Engagement with Inner City Elementary/Middle School Students

On an early October morning, Georgia Institute of Technology students loaded wheelchairs, tablets, measuring sticks, and smart levels into a van to drive the half mile down to Centennial Place Academy.  The graduate and undergraduate student volunteers were all set to spend two full days at the neighboring public elementary/middle school to work with local sixth graders on discussions, activities, and presentations on Transportation Engineering and the Research Process, which was a K-12 project funded by the STRIDE Center led by Research Engineer, Dr. Yanzhi “Ann” Xu. Graduate student researchers working along with Dr. Xu designed the sessions around current research projects underway at Georgia Tech, using materials and new technologies recently developed by themselves and their peers. The image to the right shows the Georgia Tech researchers and graudate students teaching students about the transportation engineering research process.

The program started in the Spring of 2014, when Georgia Tech researchers visited the entire class of 82 fifth graders at Centennial Place Academy for a half-day overview session.  Topics included transportation mode choice, pedestrian accessibility, traffic engineering, safety, and travel diary data collection.  Based on data collected by themselves, the Centennial students discussed and hypothesized around common transportation engineering problems.  They quickly connected technology and problem solving, suggesting solutions such as developing cost and energy efficient “supershoes” to encourage more students to walk to school and make an active transportation mode choice.  They also started to understand the real life implications of engineering design when they took turns accomplishing everyday tasks in wheelchairs.

In Fall 2014, Georgia Tech researchers led immersive sessions for two full days with 19 of the 82 students, who were then in sixth grade.  The sixth graders participated in multiple hands-on sessions, with the final day giving students an in depth experience with just one topic.  Students had the chance to experiment with data collection methods ranging from traditional means such as measuring sticks, paper and pencil, to innovative technologies such as mobile apps, developed by Georgia Tech researchers, on the tablets.  The program culminated in the Centennial students presenting in small groups on the module that they focused on including their initial hypotheses, their data collection methodologies, data analysis, and overall conclusions. The image above is of Centennial Place Academy. Here, the students are exploring their educational environment from different levels of mobility restrictions.  Students had to complete tasks such as checking out a book from the top shelf in the library while using a manual wheelchair.

 “It was very encouraging to see from the final presentations how much knowledge and skills the students have acquired in our program,” said Dr. Xu, the principal investigator who reached out to Centennial at the start and organized the initiative. “The excitement and interest the students have developed for Transportation Engineering were our best reward.”

The researchers hope that reaching out to Centennial Place students at a young age will help encourage them to pursue engineering in the future, especially as many of the students who participated are underrepresented in the field, as the Centennial student body is only 5% white and nearly evenly split between boys and girls. Showing the middle school students that engineering can be fun, hands-on, and uses skills and techniques that they already know is important in building a strong and diverse future work force.  The program also cultivated the spirit of mentorship among the student researchers.

 “I have now realized my passion for teaching and STEM education,” as one student researcher, Alice Grossman, said. Grossman is the principal student researcher who oversaw the entire program and who has very much enjoyed the experience. “My favorite moment from all of our time over at Centennial academy was watching an undergraduate student I had been working with for independent research credits help a group of sixth graders take measurements to compare for their presentation,” she added.

Not only are the modules transferable and publically available online (http://www.transportation.ce.gatech.edu/node/2617), but so are the methodologies behind breaking outreach programs into sessions, finding volunteer members of the university community, and reaching middle school students through active learning techniques.

For more information, contact Dr. Ann Xu at yanzhi.xu@ce.gatech.edu or Alice Grossman at agrossman3@gatech.edu.