Tufts University Cummings School outreach program challenges kids to build STEM skills
By Christine Galeone, Contributing Writer
Grafton – There’s no doubt that most children love pets. But can that child-animal bond help them expand their education? Dr. Cyndie Webster, associate chair for research at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, thinks so. Once, as part of the school’s outreach program to children at local schools, a workshop she led included a writing assignment.
“They had to write a letter to themselves from their pet’s perspective,” recalled Webster. “The teachers told me that all the kids – even those who did not like writing – embraced the assignment. That is when I really began to think that we could we could also inspire students to pursue careers in engineering by using animals as a hook.”
Since 2005, Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine has been nurturing that theory. At the end of February and early March, it held its annual workshops at local elementary schools in Grafton and Millbury. The workshops engaged students in animal-related STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) challenges.
This year, after learning about careers in veterinary medicine, the fifth-grade students were given the challenge of building a mobility cart for a paralyzed dog. They were shown an actual mobility cart. Then, Tufts faculty and clinicians helped them create a materials budget and solve problems associated with designing and engineering the device. Students were able to test their inventions on plush toy dogs.
With help from Tufts Center for Engineering and Education Outreach, the Cummings School developed the workshop and its activities to introduce engineering principles to children in a way that would inspire them to want to learn more STEM skills. It hopes to encourage them to consider STEM-related careers.
“It is well documented that many children lose their interest in science in late elementary or early middle school, so we concentrate our efforts here,” said Webster. “We are also aware of the fact that girls who are very underrepresented in engineering are attracted to animal-related professions…so this is an audience we can target with our programs.”
Although the workshop has been well received, Webster admitted that there are obstacles.
“The biggest challenge is to integrate the engineering concepts – and, yes, the math that comes with it – into the presentations without losing their interest,” explained Webster. “We overcome this by making the engineering problem relevant to the pet’s health and tie it to a fun hands-on project.”
Overcoming that obstacle has helped the program to grow. Originally, the outreach program started as simple career lectures to Grafton fifth-graders. But through engaging activities and the power of the bond that kids have with animals, it continues to flourish.
“We have now expanded the program to include several veterinary and engineering challenges, and we use the curricular units in our on-campus programs, Gap Junction and Adventures in Veterinary Medicine,” said Webster. “We also work with the Central Mass. STEM Council, a group sponsored by the Massachusetts Department of Education, to provide an interactive experience for all seventh- and eighth-graders at Worcester East Middle School. We also do occasional programs off campus for special groups, such as the Girl Scouts.”
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