Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2842: ENGINEERING MAGNET

by Andrew Boyd

Today, an open house. The University of Houston’s College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

As model rockets go, it was a big one — perhaps two stories tall. But what impressed me wasn’t its size so much as where I found it: lying on its side in a high school classroom. And it wasn’t the only hands-on engineering project I encountered. There was an apparatus for turning food scraps into fuel. Scattered around the room were homemade contraptions for making electricity out of wind, not to mention an outdoor wind turbine that could be used to power the classroom’s lights and other gadgets. I saw cars run by mousetraps and prototypes for Mars rovers.

rocket

student of Dr Le with built rocket

But my favorite was an ingenious classroom-built centrifuge. A good centrifuge of the size the class needed would’ve cost five to ten thousand dollars. But the converted old washing machine seemed to do fine when set on “spin.” It was less expensive than a centrifuge, and just as importantly, the students had to design and make the modifications.

The classroom is the brainchild of Dr. Nghia Le, who was recently chosen to serve on the Teacher’s Advisory Council for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Le teaches at Booker T. Washington High School, home to the engineering magnet program in the Houston School District. I had the chance to visit Le and his students during an open house, where prospective students and their parents wander the room and ask questions. (I didn’t come as a parent that night, just an interested spectator.)

Dr. Nghia Le

Both Le and his pupils agree his teaching’s a bit unorthodox. Students aren’t given carefully crafted assignments. They’re expected to come up with their own. When they run into problems, Le’s happy to provide guidance, but never a solution.

Students get plenty of math and science as mandated by the state board of education. But Le’s engineering class is important because, as one student told me, it “opens their minds.” Calculating the trajectory of a rocket comes alive when the rocket is real and within arm’s reach. Hands-on experience also provides an appreciation of calculus and the laws of physics that shape a rocket’s flight path.

Le’s also big on communication skills, something engineers are frequently faulted for. Students need to be able to explain what they’re doing at a moment’s notice, in terms anyone can understand.

I left the open house that evening feeling good inside. Interacting with students who are early in the process of choosing a career is one of my favorite activities. I love to hear what they’re thinking, and of course I love to share stories about how fun and fulfilling life can be as an engineer or scientist or mathematician.

students of Dr Le working

Dr. Le’s classroom was a testament to the joy of engineering. But it was also a testament to the creative possibilities for teaching. My hat goes off to Dr. Le and to the many educators who seek to engage young minds in imaginative new ways.

I’m Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Notes and references:

Thanks to Dr. Nghia Le, students Lindsay Thompson and Elizabeth Nolazco, and all of the students in the Booker T. Washington Engineering Program.

The picture of Dr. Le receiving an award is from the Booker T. Washington High School website. All pictures of the classroom are by Katy Boyd.

This episode was first aired on November 15, 2012



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2012 by John H. Lienhard.