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Cornell University program trains high school students to be next generation of engineers

New Visions Engineering students don cleanroom suits inside the Cornell NanoScale Science and Technology Facility.
New Visions Engineering
New Visions Engineering students don cleanroom suits inside the Cornell NanoScale Science and Technology Facility.

Engineering is all around us and it takes special skills to put it to good use. Programs like New Visions at Cornell University are providing high school students with a unique opportunity to get a head start on being the next generation of engineers. David Syracuse is the engineering teacher for the New Visions program at Cornell University.

Brent Fox: So what is the New Visions program?

David Syracuse: It's a great question. And it's a complex one as well. Essentially, we take high driven, really exciting, excited high school students who are in their senior year, and they want to be engineers of some description. They really do. Some of them know exactly what type of engineer they want to be. Some of them think engineers drive trains still. But we've got to try and figure out exactly what they'd like to be. And we give them a really immersive experience. So we have a combination of things. We use a curriculum for the University of Texas at Austin called Engineer Your World. We have a number of field trips that we take throughout the year. And a lot of it is just hands-on learning to explore what engineering is. I think in high school, a lot of students get introduced to the scientific method, and not a lot of them get introduced to the engineering design process. So we really want to show them that engineers have a specific way of solving problems. And it really gives them a leg up on their counterparts if they're going to engineering school because they've got this background information already.

BF: And how did the program get started?

DS: The program was started about six years ago, as a collaboration between a professor at Cornell and the material science and engineering department, and TST BOCES. I was working at TST BOCES at the time and was fortunate enough to interview and be accepted for the position.

BF: This might be a bit of an out there question, but where do all the students come from?

DS: That's not. It's not an out there question at all. The students come from our eight surrounding districts in the Tompkins, Seneca and Tioga BOCES area. So we have students from three different counties.

BF: What kinds of things do the students in the program get to do?

DS: The students get to do a remarkably large number of things. I really wish I had a program like this when I was in high school. I mentioned before that we go on well over 40 field trips every year. Some of those things include visits to labs and other places on Cornell's campus, but also businesses in the area. So we really give them the idea of what it's like to do engineering, perhaps in the academic side, but perhaps in the industry side as well. In addition to that, I mentioned we use a curriculum called Engineer Your World through the University of Texas at Austin.

New Visions Engineering student Marley Thomson disassembles a plasma etcher.
New Visions Engineering
New Visions Engineering student Marley Thomson disassembles a plasma etcher.

And essentially, what that is, is they take their entire freshman engineering course, their engineering 101, if you will. And instead of teaching it in one semester, they spread it out over two semesters and make it really project based. So it's a really amazing curriculum that really immerses the students in the engineering design process. In addition to that, the students also take calculus based physics, English 12, which is required for graduation. And then government and economics, which are two half credit courses that are also required for graduation. In New York state, because we have the students their entire senior year from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., they have a chance to take one or two classes back at their home school. But we give them the opportunity to to get those credits through New Vision so that they they can be flexible and make sure they're ready for graduation.

BF: And why do you feel it's important that we give high school students the opportunity to really experience the engineering process, you know, hands on?

DS: I think we're, if you look back into the history of science, science is the process of discovering things. You know, we're using the scientific method, we're asking questions, making hypotheses, and then designing experiments to figure out what the answer to that question is. Engineering then is taking those answers that we learned in science, and actually applying them to solve real world problems. And with things like obviously, the COVID pandemic that we're going through, or went through, with climate change with all of these other large existential crises that the human race is facing, we've got to have people who can take the knowledge that humans have learned and actually apply it in creative and sustainable ways. Sustainable in terms of environmental, sustainable in terms of energy, just, we've got to take what we're doing and take it to the next level, essentially. So I think it's really important that we have students who are not only thinking about discovering new things, you know, winning Nobel Prizes for interesting discoveries, but for thinking about ways that we can actually use what we've learned to make the world a better place.

BF: And what would you hope the students who do take part of the program take away from it?

DS: They need to make sure that they are engineering for everyone. We talk a lot about universal design in the class. And a lot of the built environment is not engineered for everyone. If you look at things as disparate as redlining from the 1950s, you know, putting highways in places with the various specific purpose of keeping different groups of people separate, or if you look at how many buildings are built that exclude people with different mobility issues, we've got to make sure that we include everyone. And I think one of the cool parts about our course is that we do that. We actually look at projects and we think about in an integral way, how can we find a solution that includes everyone? Because a solution that doesn't include everyone isn't really a solution. I think social justice is a really important thing to be working out. And I think we can get it through engineering. I think that's maybe not the first discipline that comes to mind when people say let's make this a more just world. But engineering, I mean, almost everything around us is engineered, it's difficult to decide on something that isn't engineered. And so if we can really bake in the ideas of social justice, to engineering, well, that's a great place to start.

BF: I've been speaking with David Syracuse at Cornell University for the New Visions engineering program.

Cornell University is a sponsor of WSKG News.

Has been working in public media since 2018. Was a multimedia producer at WNIT in South Bend, Indiana before making his way back to the New York.