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Oct. 13, 2008
Contact: Brendan M. Lynch, University Relations, (785) 864-8855.

KU researchers want to spark interest in bioengineering among fourth-graders

LAWRENCE — A new project spearheaded by researchers at the University of Kansas is designed to boost passion for science and engineering among fourth-graders across Kansas, with an emphasis on girls and minority students. Called “RET Site: Bioengineering Toolkits for Fourth Grade Teachers,” the initiative will guide elementary school teachers throughout the state in creating programs of study in bioengineering, a discipline in which a high percentage of women earn advanced degrees.

Funded with a $500,000 award from the National Science Foundation, the undertaking is directed by two prominent women bioengineers at KU — Lisa Friis, associate professor of mechanical engineering, and Paulette Spencer, Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering. For three years beginning in June 2009, KU bioengineering faculty and graduate students will join forces with Kansas grade-school teachers during on-campus workshops and at the Greenbush Southeast Kansas Education Service Center to create customized educational materials. This program will be eligible for competitive renewal after the initial three-year period.

“We are re bringing fourth-grade teachers into the bioengineering lab,” Friis said. “They’ll be learning about bioengineering and developing a toolkit. Then they’ll take the toolkit down to Greenbush and work with graduate students to refine the toolkit and introduce it to 24 other Kansas science teachers. The collaboration with Greenbush is very important, as they have networks to reach teachers and students in all areas of our state."

Friis said that bioengineers view the human body as a machine by relying on engineering principles of materials, structures and mechanics. Bioengineers design replacement parts and materials for the body, using both biological and synthetic materials. Examples of bioengineering include artificial hip and knee joints, heart valves, kidney dialysis machines, dental implants and imaging tools to diagnose heart disease or breast cancer.

While the bioengineering curriculum will benefit all fourth-grade students, Friis said that focusing on how engineering helps injured and ill people can capture the imagination of girls in particular. She uses an experience with her own grade-school daughter as a case-in-point.

“About two years ago, my daughter came home and told me she was not good in math and science,” said Friis. “That shocked me because she’s a straight-A student and very smart, and I think she has a good role model with a mom who is an engineer. We started looking into why might she be thinking this way, and it turns out it is not at all uncommon.”

Because science and engineering stress “remote machinery and abstract concepts” while fourth-grade girls tend to be more caring of human needs at that stage, Friis thinks a targeted curriculum in bioengineering will make science and education more accessible to female students.

“Our hypothesis for the RET program is that if we could help teachers to teach the fourth-grade curriculum of math and science in terms of the human body machine that girls might be able to better relate to it,” Friis said.

Indeed, bioengineering has a proven appeal to females, with women representing about half of the nation’s bioengineers.

At the project’s outset, teachers will be drawn from seven elementary schools in eastern Kansas and one southeastern Kansas community college with significant and growing Hispanic populations. As the 2006 chair of the Education and Professional Development Committee for the Society for Biomaterials, Friis helped develop ideas for educational toolkits within that group’s student chapters. But she said the toolkits for Kansas schoolchildren would be largely shaped by the fourth-grade teachers themselves.

“Toolkits will be hands-on activities for the students, reading materials at their level that explain basic curricular concepts for the fourth-grade,” said Friis. “And the toolkits will give them activities to study what’s going on with the human body. They’ll explain forces and moments and lever arms in terms of body mechanics — things that the students can relate to directly.”

Whether or not elementary school students have exposure to materials from the project, Friis said parents and teachers could inspire passion for science and engineering in both girls and boys. For instance, after her own daughter expressed misgivings about science and engineering, Friis made those studies more relevant.

“I tried to instill science concepts in things that she was interested in,” Friis said. “She loved to cook. So we talked about how cooking was really like chemical engineering, and that measuring and weighing and cooking and planning the meal was much like the processes of chemical engineering. From that moment on, she could relate herself to being an engineer in something she thought was fun.”

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