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A group of University of Nebraska professors and researchers are working together to create new curriculum aimed toward exposing elementary-aged students to science, technology, engineering and math.

Thanks to nearly $1 million of support from the National Science Foundation, the team will use wearable technology to teach fourth through sixth-grade students the importance of these disciplines.

Brad Barker, associate professor and coordinator of 4-H youth development and the principal investigator on the grant, said the goal of the three-year project is to design, develop and test an effective model for teaching and learning engineering design concepts.

The project is a collaboration between Nebraska 4-H Extension, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, UNL’s Biological Systems Engineering, the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s College of Education and the Nebraska Department of Education’s Nebraska 21st Century Community Learning Center grants program.

The hybrid program will “(bridge) formal classroom teaching and learning environments with out-of-school time learning environments delivered by teaching teams of formal and informal educators working in 21st Century Community Learning Center programs.”

In the first activity, Barker said students build their engineering design notebooks using loose-leaf paper and card stock. After being provided a battery and battery holder, test leads and LEDs, the students are asked to draw their best understanding of how to connect the battery to the two LEDs.

Next, students test their design by creating a circuit and connecting the power supply and LEDs. Once they have perfected their circuit, the students redraw it on the cover of their notebook and, using a needle and embroidery floss, sew their imaginary circuit together.

“We found that students did not have much experience sewing,” Barker said. “So this helps them learn the basics and provides a way to introduce circuitry.”

In another activity, students use LEDs, batteries and conductive thread to create a pennant out of felt, first sketching their design in their engineering notebook and testing their circuitry, then transferring the design to the felt to build their pennant.

“In another project, students bring in a T-shirt or hat and create a wearable technology project that incorporates a light sensor and LEDs,” Barker added. “When the light sensor is covered – the threshold value indicates darkness – then the LEDs light up on the textile.”

Later in the program, the curriculum also introduces microcontrollers and computer programming.

Each member of the interdisciplinary team has a specific role in creating the new curriculum.

Carl Nelson, an associate professor of mechanical and materials engineering at UNL, represents engineering in the curriculum development.

He said students in this age group are beginning to develop perceptions of what they’re interested in, what they’re good at and what they want to do in the future.

“If they are not exposed to science, technology, engineering and math early in this process, then it is more likely that they will opt for other career paths even though they may have the right aptitude to make significant contributions to STEM,” Nelson said.

The team hopes to target the program at populations that are typically underrepresented in STEM, namely females, to help narrow the achievement gap, Nelson said.

“My role in creating new curriculum is to make sure that the learning experiences are age-appropriate and that it implements positive youth development practices,” assistant professor of youth development Michelle Krehbiel said.

As the principal investigator on the grant, Barker’s role is to bring together the team, which includes Nelson and Krehbiel as well as research professor at UNL’s Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools Gwen Nugent, UNO community chair of STEM education Neal Grandgenett, coordinator of professional development for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program Kim Larson and UNL assistant professor and science literacy specialist Jennifer Melander.

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