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Advances in Wise Guys & Gals—Boys and Girls as WISEngineering STEM Learners

The project staff has been very busy from before the official start of the project to assure a smooth and productive year. There have been several initiatives we have undertaken to enhance the quality and the project. In this project, we work as a whole, supporting each other’s primary efforts. Re terminology, the people who provide face-to-face instruction for the youth in the Boys & Girls Clubs (BGCs) are Learning Facilitators; the youth are Learners; and the project staff that provides professional development are Project Liaisons. The curriculum development team members create activities that were initiated by the whole team with the support of the Advisory Board. The Project Liaisons test out activities and report findings to the Curriculum Team for incorporation in the final activity design. A similar process occurs with the software development, led by co-PI Xiang Fu. The whole team provides feedback to evolving and improved WISEngineering learning environment. An important feature of the Wise Guys & Gals (WGG) is that the Learning Facilitators are not content providers, but rather provide a safe learning environment for the activity to occur. The WISEngineering environment provides all the content information and the assessment; and because it provides automated assessment, we are able to track youth learning and participation.

Activity Development

Signing in requires a Facilitator to provide youth with information about the course; here is the login page


The project team decided that an easy on ramp was needed to introduce BGCs to WISEngineering. The first experience was for youth to learn to log in and create their own avatar with High Five activity, where after youth successfully login, they create their own avatar and give the Facilitator a ‘high five’. This proved to be a very engaging activity and encouraged continuing participation.

The next activity that was received very positively was determining the optimum potato chip. This engaged the children and we found that the idea of no correct answer, but an optimum one depending on your values, was challenging for many children who are used to uniqueness in STEM.

As the activities evolved, we refined the framework, paying attention to the constraints of limited time—designing for 75 minutes. In terms of STEM careers, each activity is framed in terms of an engineering discipline (e.g. Mechanical, Electrical, Civil), and a video clip discusses challenges engineers within the discipline encounter. The activities are based on the informed engineering design pedagogy, where Knowledge and Skill Builders (KSBs) provide the scaffolding information about the challenge so the youth understand why and what they are doing. We mined the resources of teachengineering.org at the suggestion of advisory board member, Dr. Jacquelyn Sullivan, lead architect for the teachengineering project and developed additional activities to share with them.

Short Activity Snapshots


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Filtering Yuk

Extended Activity Snapshots

WuGGs to the Rescue

From very early in human history, people have engineered shoes to protect their feet. Anthropologists believe that shoes were invented between 26,000-40,000 years ago. In early days, sandals or shoes made of plant fibers, animal skin, or wood were popular.

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Today your and your partner need to draw on your engineering skills to save your lives! The airplane that you were travelling in has crashed in rugged, mountainous terrain. Fortunately you survived with just a few bumps and bruises. Unfortunately during the tumultuous descent one of you has lost a shoe. You will need to engineer a shoe with the materials you have available so that you can walk down the mountain to safety.

Engineering is often a process of improving upon previous designs. Today you will engage in this process. First you will construct a shoe called a WuGG using a given set of directions. You will test your WuGG. Then you will think about how you might improve a WuGG, redesign, and test your new design.

You will work with a partner and have limited time and materials to engineer your shoe.

The WISEngineering Environment

A Web-Based, Open Source, Engineering Design Platform

For engineering projects, a spiral learning model is a very natural model of the learning process. Given a design challenge and the specification of an engineering project, the engineer will first develop the domain knowledge and ideate solutions. Building prototype, test and evaluation design, and refine design. This process can be repeated multiple times until the final goal is reached.

All learning nodes are tagged and clicking the corresponding stage on the navigation control brings the students conveniently to the corresponding step.

Evaluation and Research

As part of the evaluation and research efforts the project seeks to understand how a blended learning environment based on informed engineering design, created for informal STEM, is used; particularly in a setting where facilitator (B&GC staff) turnover is great and youth often have an option of “dropping in or out.” Furthermore, we will examine how the virtually collected data that allows for WISEngineering’s just-in-time feedback to youth and facilitators are used within an informal setting.

The WISEngineering Architecture

One of the goals of WISE Guys & Gals is to be able to scale to a large number of Boys & Girls Clubs. This requires a system architecture that is scalable. We also want to be able to learn from what the youth are learning, their behavior in WISEngineering as part of our research initiative. For that we had to restructure the environment into Satellite Servers that would host regional clubs, for instance, and where the various activities would be stored and a Central Report Server, that communicates with the Satellite Server which hosts the Artificial Intelligence software that allows us to automatically assess extended responses. Multiple choice and unique answer responses are assessed within the Satellite Server environment.

Automated Grading

The extended response assessments required a trained system, based on open-source EdX software. Our preliminary work indicates that in developing a four-point rubric, we needed at least ten examples of work at each level for initial system training. So the quality of materials used for system training (calibration) is critical.

The system monitors the quality of the system calibration.

As part of our development of the activities we are linking the learning goals to different questions, so we will have a robust data set for each participating youth.

There is a built-in project reporting system, we can monitor club progress as well as Learner progress within the clubs.

Design Journal and Design Wall

WISEngineering uses functionalities to scaffold engineering design: the Design Wall, and Design Journal. The Design Wall is similar to social networking websites or blogs and enables collaboration and critique of designs by posting on a “wall.” Students can post images as well as video clips that they have found for inspiration in the ideation phase, or post revised designs after testing. Students can use the Design Wall to share with team members who may be within their same class. The Design Journal keeps track of everything the students generate and is regarded as a private scratch book owned by the student, for documenting the entire design process of an engineering project. From the Design Journal, students can select to publish their ‘private’ entries to the public design wall for sharing. Both the Design Journal and Design wall facilitate authentic engineering practices as well as reflection.

Here is a sample posting from the Design Wall, where participating youth can post comments on each other’s work.

Tablet Version of WISEngineering

We have been able to reprogram WISEngineering, originally designed for PCs, to android tablets. All Boys & Girls Club participants were given seven inch tablets, and are able to perform all their work in the tablet environment.

With a special chrome web application designed for a 7 inch Android tablet device, WISEngineering allows students to view all the related engineering lab curriculum materials while working on the hands-on experiments. Students no longer have to walk between their desktop computers and the work-bench that they use to assemble their projects. The tablet version supports all the powerful tools already included in the WISEngineering system for supporting scientific calculation. The mobile tablet platform embraces the social media technology for supporting a collaborative learning community among students.