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Yes, You Can Teach Engineering in High School

By Mark Conner

So, what do you do for a living?

The conversation usually goes something like this…

“So, you teach high school. What do you teach?”


“Engineering in high school? Really?”

“Yes, it’s a four-year program.”

“We didn’t have anything like that when I was in school.” 

At that point, the conversation can go in a number of directions…but their observation is correct — we didn’t have anything like this when we were in school!

What’s happening in engineering education at the high-school level?

The first decade of the 21st century has been an interesting one in terms of engineering education. At the collegiate level, schools and colleges of engineering have begun to realize that a change in their approach is required to increase student retention, with the introduction of more hands-on, project-based introductory courses surfacing as the most common curriculum change. At the same time, engineering has become a buzz word in K-12 circles. Competitions like BEST Robotics and FIRST Robotics are sparking the interest of thousands of middle- and high-school students around the country in engineering and related fields. Pre-packaged curricula, such as the one-year curriculum developed through the Infinity Project (which is now being expanded), and multi-year approaches like Project Lead The Way, have entered the picture and grown in popularity. More and more high schools are adding “engineering” to their offerings.

Anecdotally, I would predict that student interest in engineering is on the rise. The big question is: Are these students prepared for an undergraduate engineering curriculum? The gap between generating interest and preparing students is significant. No matter what changes may be on the horizon, students entering undergraduate engineering programs need to be prepared for the math, science and technological requirements that are inherent in an engineering education. The term engineering is very poorly defined in K-12 circles. A wide variety of activities and courses are labeled as “engineering,” with no distinction made between engineering, engineering technology and manufacturing. The problem is compounded by the fact that most such high-school programs that I’ve encountered lack a requisite math and science component. Students can graduate high school having participated in various competitions and taken one or more “engineering” courses while having completed only algebra II and general chemistry. The statistical likelihood of such students entering and completing a four-year degree (after successfully completing 1-2 years of prerequisite courses at the university level) is not very high.

Is it enough to get students excited about engineering?

Getting students excited about engineering was definitely at the core of why we started The Engineering Academy at Hoover High School in 2004. However, if all we accomplished was generating enthusiasm without adequately preparing students for the next stage of their engineering education, “success” would be short-lived. Just one or two graduating classes sent to slaughter would be sufficient to stop us before we really started. So, we built our curriculum with the goal that our graduates would experience a seamless academic transition to engineering at the undergraduate level.

The Engineering Academy is a four-year program that includes three curricular components — math, science and engineering. We started with the math sequence, knowing that students who take calculus in high school tend to be more successful in engineering in college. Using calculus as the 12th-grade math course, we worked backward to our target audience being those students who were taking algebra I in the 8th grade* (which is roughly 30 percent of our student population). We then turned to the sequence of science courses, with the minimum sequence for four-year students including biology, chemistry, physics and an advanced science course in one of these three areas. The majority of students will complete pre-advanced placement (AP) courses in biology and chemistry and two years of physics, culminating in the calculus-based AP physics course.

What sets The Engineering Academy at Hoover High School apart?

The last phase of the curriculum development was the sequence of engineering courses. Much of what is being done in high schools under the name of engineering is more in line with Career and Technical Education (CTE) (formerly known Vocational Education). We want to prepare our students for the rigor of a four-year engineering degree, and that preparation starts as soon as they enter the academy. Part of what sets our program apart from others is that the engineering courses have been designed and are taught by the three engineers on our faculty (Mark Conner — BSME, MSME, PhDME; Bryan Rosenstiel — BSEE, JD; and LaShawnda Harris — BSMTE, MSMTE). Knowing firsthand what our students will face when they leave us to enter college, we have developed the four engineering electives to serve multiple purposes:

  • Expose students to the engineering profession and the various engineering disciplines

  • Integrate math and science concepts through practical applications, and help answer the question, “When will we ever use this stuff?”

  • Provide students with numerous open-ended, hands-on projects where they can learn teamwork and apply the engineering design process

  • Teach students to become strong communicators, with specific emphasis on technical writing and speaking

  • Allow students to develop “fluency” in tools commonly used in engineering, such as:

    • Computer-Aided Drawing & Design (CADD) (3D solid modeling & animations, 2D drawings)

    • Basic Finite Element Modeling (FEM) and Finite Element Analysis (FEA)

    • Programming for engineering applications using MATLAB and LabVIEW

  • Teach students to become independent learners who are confident in the midst of uncertainty and secure enough to ask questions

The standard four-year curriculum is shown in the table below. The general layout of the courses is relatively static, though the specific content and design projects for each course are somewhat dynamic, both by design and necessity. Many of the topics covered in the engineering electives are comparable to 100 — 400 level engineering courses. We generally don’t cover these topics at the pace or depth that is appropriate for undergraduates, but we don’t water things down either. When difficult material is presented to high school students in an approachable way — even as early as 9th grade — it is amazing what they are capable of learning. We are continually amazed at what our students are doing, and we constantly have to grow our curriculum to keep up with them.






(Pre-AP) Geometry (Pre-AP) Biology Intro. to Engineering/ Engineering Drawing & Solid Modeling


(Pre-AP) Algebra II w/ Trig. (Pre-AP) Chemistry or Pre-AP Integrated Chemistry & Physics Engineering Instrumentation & Analysis


(Pre-AP) Pre-Calculus (AP-B) Physics Engineering Computations


(AP) Calculus AP-C Physics Engineering Design & Entrepreneurship

*We have since allowed students who take Algebra I in 9th grade to enter as sophomores and complete the first three years of the academy, though the three-year students only represent approximately 10 percent of the students in the academy.

Does it work?

We’ve graduated 32 students in our first two senior classes, 25 of whom are currently pursuing engineering degrees. Another 25 students will graduate this spring. Our alumni are giving great feedback about the preparation that they received at Hoover High School. These graduates are currently pursuing engineering degrees at

  • Auburn University

  • Georgia Tech

  • Harding University

  • Mississippi State University

  • United States Naval Academy

  • University of Alabama

  • University of Alabama at Birmingham

  • University of Florida

  • University of Illinois

  • Vanderbilt University

The academy started with 32 first-year students in 2004. We have seen interest grow during each of the five years since then. More than 100 students have applied to enter the academy next year, and we will start the 2010-11 school year with 200+ students in grades 9-12 (roughly eight percent of the total student population).

How does this matter?

The retention rate for engineering students across the United States has traditionally hovered around 50 percent. Two of the leading reasons for students leaving engineering are a lack of academic preparation and/or a lack of understanding about what engineering entails. We could roughly double the number of engineering degrees awarded annually in the United States by simply providing adequate preparation and background for the students who enter engineering programs in college. High school programs like ours can do just that — and what we’re doing can be replicated! It just requires some vision on the part of the school administration and the right personnel — namely some engineers with a passion for teaching students and an ability to communicate. To find out more about our academy, please download our brochure and visit our Web site at www.eahoover.com. (By the way, the brochure and Web site were developed through a grant from IEEE Region 3! Both were designed by Paul Crawford, founder of Scout Branding Company in Birmingham, Alabama, with photography done by Jason Wallis of Jason Wallis Photography in Birmingham. Paul was just named Creative Director of the Year and Copywriter of the Year, and Jason the Photographer of the Year in Birmingham by the American Advertising Federation.)



Mark D. Conner currently serves as the Director of The Engineering Academy at Hoover High School (www.eahoover.com) in Alabama. He also holds an appointment as Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), where he has taught a variety of electrical circuits courses for all engineering majors since 1998. Conner earned M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in mechanical engineering from Duke University and a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering from UAB.

For the past ten years, Conner has been involved with the IEEE in various national K-12 education activities. He has participated in the Technological Literacy Counts Conference, served on the Pre-College Education Coordinating Committee, spoken at several IEEE conferences, and initiated the idea of bringing deans of engineering and deans of education together to discuss K-16 education (leading to the IEEE Deans Summit series of meetings). In 2004, Dr. Conner was award the IEEE Pre-College Educator Award.

Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.

Copyright © 2010 IEEE

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