Rebecca Whitaker, Engineering Outreach

Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

Rebecca Whitaker didn’t major in engineering—not because she wasn’t interested in math or science, but rather because of misconceptions related to engineering.

“I didn’t know an engineer, and I didn’t know what engineers did—I thought they drove trains,” says Whitaker, who serves as the K–12 outreach coordinator in the University of Iowa College of Engineering. “I didn’t know girls could be engineers. I didn’t have an experience that inspired me to go into engineering.”

It is her personal goal to change these misconceptions for young students. In her job, Whitaker creates engaging, hands-on experiences for young people, with the hope that these students will be interested in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (or STEM, for short). More specifically, she hopes these students pursue a degree in engineering at Iowa.

fyi caught up with the UI alumna (and lifelong Johnson County resident) to talk about the ways to attract young minds to STEM, how these approaches differ based on age and gender, and what sort of adventurous new hobby she’d like to try.

What led you to this job, and what aspects of the job do you like best?

The K–12 outreach coordinator position was created in July 2007 to address the national shortage of students who are choosing to pursue a degree in the STEM fields. After six years working for the University—nearly four years with the College of Engineering—I was promoted to the outreach position.

My favorite aspects of the job? When students say one of our programs influenced them to pursue a degree in engineering or influenced their decision to attend the University of Iowa. I work with a great group of volunteers, wonderful program sponsors, a great group of teachers, and the K–12 students throughout Iowa. And every day is different—I have a unique position and I’m fortunate to do what I enjoy.

How do you drum up interest in engineering with elementary school children?

I must make the activities fun, hands-on, and easy to do. Using materials familiar to younger students helps them learn engineering-related concepts very well. We teach basic programming by using LEGO WeDo kits with lower elementary students and/or LEGO Mindstorms for upper elementary students. We teach the concepts of physics/center of gravity by building towers using mini-marshmallows and toothpicks.

During alternating summers, I coordinate a one-week summer program titled “Engineering is Elementary.” This program is based on the “Engineering is Elementary” curriculum developed by the Museum of Science in Boston (www.mos.org/eie). Students get a hands-on approach to the engineering design process and different fields of engineering. One example: The mechanical engineering unit allows students to “ask,” “imagine,” “plan,” “create,” and “improve” various aspects of windmills.

So what’s the approach with high school kids?

The key is to have students engaged for a longer amount of time. There are several nationally recognized programs to engage students at the high school level. The college is involved with two: “FIRST Tech Challenge” or FTC (www.usfirst.org/ftc) and Project Lead the Way (www.pltw.org).

A few of my favorite things…

Pagiliai’s pizza and lobster from Maine

Pepsi

Lunch at the Saloon or Bread Garden

All sorts of books

American Top 40 music

The King’s Speech—I like movies that are based on actual events

Good Eats with Alton Brown, Auction Kings, and Storage Wars

The Hawkeyes

Springtime

In FTC, student teams design, build, and program a robot using TETRIX metal pieces and LEGO Mindstorms kits. Each team has a coach and mentors—parents, professionals, or high school teachers. In early 2009, the College of Engineering became “Affiliate Partner” for FTC, with my position taking charge of this program.

Two years ago (2008–09 season), without the college’s involvement, the state of Iowa had two registered teams. In 2009–10, with College of Engineering involvement, Iowa grew to 24 registered teams. This season, Iowa has 50 registered teams. Within five years, we aim to have a team in every school district in Iowa.

Project Lead The Way (PLTW) is another nationally recognized program supported by the college. In Iowa, there are more than 100 schools/sites that offer PLTW to their middle and high school students. In addition, students can earn University of Iowa college credit by successfully completing a PLTW course.

Do you try to appeal to girls differently than boys?

Absolutely. Although the programs are the same, there are differences between the genders. In general, girls become interested in engineering when they see how they can make an impact on their community, whether it is local, national, or global. It also is important to connect girls with adult female mentors, showing them that engineering is gender-neutral.

Are more students exploring engineering at Iowa?

The College of Engineering’s enrollment has grown over the past few years. The fall 2011 incoming class is projected to be one of the largest.

Where does most of your work happen: at events here on campus or on the road? Do you have a favorite event?

I am very proud of the University, and I feel we have a very beautiful campus and some great people. I enjoy bringing students here, introducing them to faculty and students, and giving them a brief experience of campus life. On beautiful fall and spring days, I enjoy taking a group to Burge Hall and walking them through the heart of campus, the Pentacrest.

For more information about College of Engineering outreach programs, including summer programs, visit k-12.engineering.uiowa.edu

Unfortunately, many school budgets are tight and the funds may not be available for field trips. In those instances, I try to visit as many schools as my schedule allows.

My favorite event is the FTC–Iowa Championship, because it allows volunteers, parents, mentors, coaches, teachers, and teams from throughout Iowa to visit our campus. The 2010–11 Iowa Championship, held in February at the Iowa Memorial Union, we had nearly 450 high school students compete and had more than 110 volunteers, including current students, full-time engineers/professionals, and even retirees.

What do you like to do outside of work?

My husband, Eric, and I have two young children. I also enjoy traveling, especially if I get to fly.

If you had the time/means to try something new, what would it be?

I would really like to try skydiving or anything adventurous.