A strong multimodal transportation system is critical for a nation’s economy. In the United States, however, our world-class transportation system is threatened by aging infrastructure, increasing demand and tighter budgets. There is a critical need to come up with innovative solutions—solutions that will be provided by a technically savvy workforce. Unfortunately, we are not producing enough students who are proficient in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to fill the jobs required for the transportation workforce of the future. The challenge is to develop innovative new programs to inspire more students to pursue STEM subject expertise, and specifically to encourage them to consider transportation careers. In Nebraska, Dr. Laurence Rilett, professor and director of the Mid-America Transportation Center (MATC), and Dr. Gina Kunz, associate research professor at the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools, have joined forces to develop and implement the MATC Summer Institute. Since 2006, this professional development program has brought together 79 K-12 STEM educators and 10 University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL) faculty members to collaborate on lesson plans for relevant and dynamic math and science activities for the classroom. These lesson plans have been taught to more than 3,500 K-12 students.
Mary Herrington, a 20-year veteran science teacher and Summer Institute participant, witnessed the powerful response of Lincoln Public Schools’ students to the lesson plans developed to foster an appreciation for STEM fields, and suggested that the Summer Institute program could be expanded into an engineering-based after-school program, which would build connections among students, teachers, mentors, industry professionals and community leaders. At Culler Middle School, where she teaches, 82 percent of the students are enrolled in the free or reduced-cost lunch program. As Herrington explained, “I could not remove every obstacle some of these children are forced to confront: poverty, language barriers, disrupted home lives. However, I could work to do whatever possible to open doors for them during their time at school.”
The solution: A unique after-school program
In 2010, with funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation and the support of the Nebraska Department of Education, the after-school club Roads, Rails, and Race Cars was piloted at Culler Middle School in Lincoln, Nebraska. Organized using hands-on, inquiry-based activities, the program connects students to a whole world of possibilities by introducing them to industry professionals and undergraduate and graduate engineering student mentors. After only two years, the Roads, Rails, and Race Cars after-school club already has inspired 236 students across five Lincoln area schools.
Program activities allow students to cultivate natural curiosity and develop problem-solving skills with minimal teacher guidance. Lessons are based on transportation engineering concepts and require only the most basic supplies. Activities—such as constructing a roadway out of pudding that must withstand a flood of milk—are fun and creative ways to demonstrate to middle school students the complexity of creating infrastructure.
The student participants
The Roads, Rails, and Race Cars club has been especially successful in encouraging girls and under-represented minorities to consider STEM fields. According to the National Science Foundation, only 18 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded in engineering in 2010 were earned by women; only 12 percent were earned by blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans combined, though these groups represent nearly 28 percent of the U.S. population. As students transition from elementary to high school, the number of members from these under-represented groups enrolled in STEM courses usually declines dramatically, a serious concern that the Roads, Rails, and Race Cars clubs help to address.
Roads, Rails, and Race Cars focuses on attracting a more diverse population of students, which aligns with the mission of the U.S. Department of Transportation Garret A. Morgan grant that provides the majority of the program’s funding. In Lincoln Public Schools, the sites with the existing framework for an after-school club also have the highest number of minorities and students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch. In the program’s most recent quarter, minorities represented 53 percent of the club members; female members represented 45 percent, a significantly higher percentage than the 13 percent of engineers who are female.
Cynthia Baker, a specialist in educational psychology and the coordinator for Roads, Rails, and Race Cars, explains that middle school students are at a critical juncture in their academic careers. Middle school students’ decisions and attitudes concerning school can funnel them into limited career pathways later in life, often excluding STEM professions as an option. Baker describes the club as an opportunity to expose and open up students to opportunities that they might not have considered otherwise.
The role of mentors
Undergraduate and graduate engineering students serve as club mentors, interacting one-on-one with students and assisting teachers in leading the activities. The relationship with a mentor allows each club participant to identify with a positive role model. Participant surveys from every quarter consistently have named the mentors as a favorite element of the club. Students have described their mentors as “fun,” “kind” and “creative,” again and again. The mentors’ words and actions carry remarkable weight among the students—they can and do inspire hope and motivation.
Quinton Rodgers, UNL civil engineering graduate student, reports that he felt honored by his responsibility as a mentor because he was supporting an industry he has a passion for, as well as affecting the futures of young people. “As a representative of a minority group, I feel a personal responsibility to educate all minorities to the opportunities that engineering and transportation can provide for their futures,” Rodgers said. “The program has altered my outlook in many ways. I not only have adopted a new approach on group projects, but I also have a different outlook now on how important it is to expose young minds to math and science at early ages.” That exposure may begin with the after-school program, but also may require more than the teachers and mentors can offer to truly illustrate the possibilities, which is where outside partners enter the picture.
The role of community partners
Larry Johnson, president of the Nebraska Trucking Association and one of the program’s strongest advocates, explained, “Linking industry to the Roads, Rails and Race Cars after-school club stimulates students to consider new directions in a manner that is not possible during the traditional school day. It is a new concept that is vital in creating career pathways students feel are accessible and can envision for their future.”
While the program has a strong foundation in engineering, it also highlights transportation careers across the spectrum that the growing pool of professionals will demand—from logisticians and public policy-makers to skilled equipment operators and truck drivers. Children need to develop greater awareness as they interact with infrastructure; for example, as students cross a bridge, they do not realize that a structural engineer designed the bridge, that an urban planner determined its location, or that equipment operators physically constructed it.
Visits from a wide variety of industry leaders personify real career options that require a strong STEM education. Johnson himself has organized club activities, such as arranging for a semi-trailer truck to visit schools. Guest presenters have included the president of Flatbed Express, Inc., a representative from Lincoln Community Learning Centers, an engineer from the Nebraska Department of Roads, as well as other representatives of the program’s partners from industry and the public sector. These interactions just might be the beginning of some of these students’ careers in transportation fields.
In the program’s first two years, involvement has grown to include 236 students, 14 engineering student mentors and eight teachers. These numbers reflect the number of students directly affected by club participation. In addition, as teachers return to their regular classes, they supplement traditional curriculum with lesson plans from the program, expanding the number of students exposed to club activities by more than 900 students each year. The after-school club provides teachers with opportunities to explore new teaching methods and to take advantage of state-of-the-art technology from UNL. The teachers then bring the most successful methods back to their regular classrooms.
Beyond the numbers, personal success stories show the real achievements of the program. For example, student Josh Gerdes has been an active member of Roads, Rails and Race Cars since its inception at Culler Middle School. As his father explained, Josh’s early interest in math and science has been enhanced by the after-school club: “This program certainly propelled him forth in his aspirations to take advanced classes in these areas in high school and in college.” Josh’s story exemplifies the goals of the club—helping students like his recognize the connection between his STEM classes and his dream occupation as a mechanical engineer, a dream not often found among middle school students at this point in their education journey.
While the founders of Roads, Rails, and Race Cars are elated by the success thus far, more work awaits. Rilett and Kunz—on behalf of UNL’s College of Engineering and UNL’s College of Education and Human Sciences—are committed to expanding the program and to seeking additional funding. One long-term goal is to create a scholarship fund so that the number of students participating can be increased.
Dr. Rilett states, “The Roads, Rails, and Race Car After-School Program is one of the most rewarding activities our students, staff and I are involved in. And like all successful programs, this is a true partnership. In our case, the cooperation among the dedicated teachers in the Lincoln Public Schools; the Nebraska Department of Education; the many private sector partners who provide their time and expertise; the UNL faculty, the parents; and of course, the students makes the Roads, Rails, and Race Cars club the success it is today, and I am delighted that we will be able to expand the program to schools in Iowa and Wisconsin next year.”