Teaching engineering in context


Tamara Moore

Moore uses model-eliciting activities and other approaches to introduce students to real-world problem-solving.

When Tamara Moore, the recipient of Purdue’s first PhD in engineering education, assumed her faculty position at the University of Minnesota in 2006, she found a decidedly Minnesotan way to pursue her research interests.

An assistant professor of mathematics education, formerly an Indianapolis-area high school math teacher with seven years’ teaching to her credit, Moore explores how to engage students in math and science through the use of engineering contexts, an approach called “STEM integration.” (STEM refers to the science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines.) She and two UM colleagues are working with Anishinabe youth on northwest Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation to incorporate traditional Native American stories and activities into a STEM curriculum. The project, called Reach for the Sky, is funded by the National Science Foundation. Its goal: to increase the STEM knowledge and career skills of Native American students.

“In our pilot activities, we introduced geometry concepts by having students build birch bark canoes, chemistry in the making of maple syrup, and biology in harvesting deer,” Moore says. The after-school program for 5th- through 8th-graders runs three years, including five-week summer sessions. Students will also learn engineering through activities such as bike design and solar and wind energy production. “We’ll incorporate material on NASA and the stars by looking at the Anishinabe’s cultural ways of thinking about the sky,” Moore says. “And when we discuss rockets, we’ll talk about feathers, too.” Arrows are, after all, projectiles.

For Moore, context is what it’s all about. In other NSF-funded research—the MEDIA (Modeling: Elicitation, Development, Integration, and Assessment) Project—she and colleagues across six universities, including Purdue, are collaborating to implement modeling activities as a foundation for undergraduate STEM curriculum and assessment, particularly in engineering classes. “To do this,” Moore says, “we’re building on model-eliciting activities,” or MEAs. An MEA is a realistic, open-ended, client-driven problem that reveals students’ thought processes as they work through a solution, which takes the form of a generalizable procedure that the client can use over and over again.

The real-world context is key to the MEA’s effectiveness as a teaching tool. “It makes all students more engaged,” Moore says, “including women, underrepresented populations, and international students.” An MEA on nanoscale roughness, for example, requires students to develop a procedure for measuring the roughness of gold, given atomic force microscope images of three different samples. The context? A biomedical company wants to extend its experience with gold coatings for artery stents to a new application: producing synthetic diamond coatings for joint replacements. Four-member student teams must establish a procedure for measuring the roughness of gold samples that can be applied to diamond samples at a later time. "A student who thinks, ‘This project could help my grandfather—he needs a hip replacement,' finds meaning in the assignment," says Moore.

“It’s challenging to get students interested in STEM fields while providing them with rich learning experiences,” says Moore. But she’s succeeding at doing just that.

Through Purdue’s School of Engineering Education, Moore received a BS in interdisciplinary engineering as well as a PhD in engineering education.



Engineering Education at Purdue. LEARNING to Make a DIFFERENCE.