A group of Clay County High School students have found that learning about the principles of engineering floats their boats — literally.
And Tennessee Tech administrators say they hope to see the university become a resource to help students at other rural Upper Cumberland schools realize how the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math are relevant in their lives too.
The Clay County students were on campus recently to test life-sized cardboard boats they built by applying concepts learned in an online principles of engineering course. Five different student teams took turns paddling their boats from one end to the other of TTU's Fitness Center swimming pool.
"Before we started building our boats, we learned a lot about buoyancy, and one of the concepts we applied to help our boat float was a reinforced base with a truss," said Sarah Boles, a senior at Clay County High School who says she's now considering studying engineering in college.
"We've learned a lot about basic engineering and how its concepts are used in a lot of different professions and applications," she said.
The course is team-taught on site by Derick Upchurch and online by Matt Boynton, and that's just what they say they want their students to say.
"Our goal is to apply STEM concepts to real-life situations in order to show their importance," Upchurch said.
Boynton agreed, saying, "Engineering is a broad field, so we want to show them what it does and what it's about. Being able to offer the course online expands these opportunities even further."
Geography, for instance, is no longer a limitation to offering the rural students experienced guest speakers, he said.
That is thanks to a state grant that has provided state-of-the-art tablet computers to link the Clay County classroom to Boynton, a TTU alumnus from Bledsoe County working on a doctorate in engineering education at Virginia Tech, and to other worldwide resources.
"These computers are what makes this class possible, because they are what allows us to work together at a distance," Boynton said.
Susan Elkins, vice president for Extended Programs and Regional Development, said, "For these students to be able to sit in a classroom in Clay County and experience and understand what it's like to communicate with someone in another state or around the world is not just a positive opportunity for the students themselves.
"It also has a positive impact on the teachers, the school system, and possibly even on the economic development of the community, because this kind of technological experience enhances the students' skills at global communication, which is absolutely necessary for success in today's society and economy," she continued.
The class is supported by a curriculum offered through a national grant-based program called "Project Lead the Way."
Boynton first taught the course on site in another county while he was still a student at TTU, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees in civil engineering and an Ed.S. in instructional leadership.
The Jackson County school system became the first to partner with the university to offer the principles of engineering course, and the pilot program was specifically targeted to a rural school where resources were limited.
"This is an opportunity we want to encourage other rural school systems to explore," Elkins said.
"Several school systems have expressed such an interest, and TTU has the resources to increase its STEM pipeline to rural schools and become even more involved in helping them create a hands-on awareness of the STEM disciplines," she said.
Research shows that schools practicing activity-, project- and problem-based learning lead to greater student motivation and higher achievement levels, but that's not all the Clay County students stand to gain from participating in such a course.
Although it offers opportunities and resources that might otherwise be unavailable to these rural students, it also provides an hour of college credit for students who pass a national exam upon completion of the course instruction.
Boynton says the collaboration of all the involved agencies illustrates the best that STEM education can be by combining the expertise and organizational abilities of the university, resources of funding agencies and secondary schools that have a desire to excite and motivate students.
"The big picture is that we are all trying to stimulate STEM education throughout the rural regions," he said.