UC San Diego Targets Girls' Science Education

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SAN DIEGO, Jan. 17, 2007 -- An environmental education initiative to try keep middle-school girls excited about science and engineering careers is being launched by the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) engineering faculty and students and the San Diego Supercomputer Center staff. The UCSD team will help San Diego county students monitor the air quality, solar radiation and other environmental factors involving their schools and will use the environmental research concepts and techniques to create a multiplayer online science challenge game designed specifically for 12- to 15-year-old girls.

The UCSD Information Technology-Engineering and Environmental Education Tools project, dubbed IT-E3 Tools, is funded through a new three-year, $1.2 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant as part of its Information Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) award program. ITEST was created in response to the shortage of information technology workers in the US and is supported with income from H-1B visas (awarded to professionals from other countries recruited to fill specialized jobs in the US).

"Despite the fact that information technology touches every aspect of our lives, women remain a minority in engineering enrollment at US universities and in technology careers," said Jeanne Ferrante, associate dean of the UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering and principal investigator of the project. "There is a critical leak in the talent pipeline, when girls lose their enthusiasm for math and science in the vulnerable years between sixth and ninth grade. We know that one of the best ways to keep girls engaged is to show them how engineering and computing connects with issues in their own lives."

Ferrante said the principles behind the IT-E3 initiative stem from the Jacobs School of Engineering's successful Teams in Engineering Service (TIES) program. This service learning program recruits teams of UCSD undergraduates to solve real-world technology problems for San Diego nonprofits.

"TIES attracts a high percentage of female participants who want to apply their engineering skills towards a worthy cause," saids TIES program director and IT-E3 co-principal investigator Silvia Mah. TIES teams are already implementing an environmental education module at the Preuss School, and UCSD students participating in TIES will work with faculty and staff of the Jacobs School of Engineering and San Diego Supercomputer Center on the IT-E3 initiative, and will be role models and peer mentors to the middle school students.

The first component of the new program gives students the tools to measure air quality and other environmental indicators around their own schools. UCSD undergraduates will design low-cost environmental sensors, which teachers and their classes can build and deploy at their sites. Students will be able to visualize and share data they collect with other students and discover the value of data in understanding environmental issues. Airborne particulate concentration and wind speed information, for example, can help students understand health risks during fire season.

"Students remember the catastrophic fires of 2003 that drove many people from their homes and caused several local school districts to close schools," said Steven Buckley, a UCSD mechanical and aerospace engineering professor who teaches in TIES and a coprincipal investigator in the new project. "At that time, there were only three stations around the county able to provide crucial information about concentrations of airborne particulates and limited resources for interpretation of concentrations to guide decisions about health and safety. We hope that the measurements that we make will be useful and capture the students' interests."

The San Diego Supercomputer Center will host a website where data can be collected from classes across the county. Web-based user interfaces will allow students and teachers to interact with and analyze the scientific data.

In addition to airborne particulates, sensors will measure local solar radiation, which will help students understand why they need to be careful about sun exposure while at the same time analyze the potential benefit of solar power for their school site.

In order to help teachers integrate this hands-on learning experience with their science curricula, UCSD will host summer workshops and monthly professional development meetings, and UCSD student interns will provide in-class support. Interested teachers from schools throughout San Diego County can apply for the training, which will begin in summer 2007 for classroom implementation in fall 2007.

Environmental investigation techniques, tools and data will all become elements of a new multiplayer online science challenge game designed specifically for middle-school girls.

"We know girls like games that involve adventure and mystery and where they can take on the persona of the lead character, said Diane Baxter, education director with the San Diego Supercomputer Center, who will oversee development of the game. "Girls are also more likely to play games in a community, rather than on their own."

Game topics will support California's earth science curriculum standards for middle school. The new game will build on an early prototype of a virtual science center, with many galleries to explore. Players create for themselves an avatar, or character, and set out to solve challenges.

Many solutions will require the players to work together. Incentives at each level completion include a "Talk to a Scientist" feature to enrich the mentoring aspect of the game. As girls gain proficiency levels, they will become mentors for new visitors to the space.

"We hope that this online game will provide peer and mentor support and form a virtual community that will help sustain girls' interest in science and technology," said Baxter.

Researchers expect a first prototype of the new game to be available by spring 2008.

The science challenge video game will be introduced to students in participating middle-school classes, including Preuss and Gompers Middle Schools. In addition, UCSD will collaborate with informal science education programs, including Sally Ride Science, TechTrek and Expanding Your Horizons, to provide training workshops for girls during summer science camps and one-day enrichment programs.

Working through the university's Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment and Teaching Excellence (CREATE), UCSD plans to conduct extensive research to understand the outcomes of the program and provide insights for future initiatives focused on encouraging girls to pursue careers in science.

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Published: January 2007
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