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Engaging the Imagination of Young People to Increase Technical Literacy

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2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


San Antonio, Texas

Publication Date

June 10, 2012

Start Date

June 10, 2012

End Date

June 13, 2012



Conference Session

Innovations in Promoting Technological Literacy I

Tagged Division

Technological and Engineering Literacy/Philosophy of Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

25.531.1 - 25.531.15



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Paper Authors

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Isabel Huff Smith College


Glenn W. Ellis Smith College

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Glenn Ellis is a professor of engineering at Smith College who teaches courses in engineering science and methods for teaching science and engineering. He received his Ph.D. in civil engineering and operations research from Princeton University. The winner of numerous teaching awards, Ellis received the 2007 U.S. Professor of the Year Award for Baccalaureate Colleges from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. His research focuses on creating K-16 learning environments that support the growth of learners’ imaginations and their capacity for engaging in collaborative knowledge work.

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Lucy McAuliffe Smith College

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Sonia K. Ellis Smith College


Beth McGinnis-Cavanaugh Springfield Technical Community College

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Beth McGinnis-Cavanaugh, M.S. (ABT), is an Associate Professor of physics and civil engineering technology at Springfield Technical Community College, where she teaches courses in physics, engineering mechanics, technical mathematics, and reinforced concrete design. She received her B.S. in civil and environmental engineering from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The PI for a 2008 NSF MSP Start Partnership grant, she has designed professional teacher education and created a learning community of Springfield, Mass., public school teachers that is changing how engineering and technology are taught throughout the city.

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Engaging the Imagination of Young People to Increase Technical LiteracyOur paper will present the application of Imaginative Education (IE) in creating an educationalwebsite called Talk to Me ( Talk to Me is being designed with the goalof engaging young people in engineering and increasing technical literacy. It is free andavailable online for anyone to use. We will present an overview of the key elements of thewebsite, including a young adult novel in which the fictional characters learn about engineeringand technology while solving a mystery; five tie-in activities; and a blog in which undergraduateengineering students write about what it is like to study engineering. The main focus of thepaper will be presenting how IE cognitive tools are being used to develop tie-in activitiesexploring flight and sustainability. Finally, an independent assessment of teachers’ reactions tothe website and an assessment of a pilot test of the website used in an informal educationalsetting will be included.Imaginative Education as conceived by Kieran Egan is one of the more important educationaltheories that has emerged from the learning sciences. In IE, learners progress through differentforms of understanding—each one growing out of its predecessor—by learning to use thecognitive tools that make such understanding possible. Talk to Me focuses on young teens andpreteens who are at an age when they are developing what Egan refers to as Mythic andRomantic understanding. Mythic understanding is the developmental stage when learnersacquire oral language with associated cognitive tools such as mystery and story. Romanticunderstanding develops when learners acquire written language and learn to use cognitive toolssuch as the extremes and limits of reality and association with heroes. A well-crafted narrativeinvolving these tools will convey concepts in a coherent and memorable form and help thelearner engage emotionally with the information being communicated. For example, the flighttie-in activity is based upon the association with heroes, a Romantic cognitive tool, and featuresCaptain Sullenberger’s heroic landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River. Thesustainability tie-in activity is based upon the use of the mystery, a Mythic cognitive tool, andfeatures a book of secrets that ties into website’s novel.An independent assessment analyzing the reactions of Springfield Public School (SPS) teachersto a Beta version of the Talk to Me website was very positive and will be included. For example85.7% of the workshop participants agreed that “the Talk to Me website is more likely to engagechildren in engineering than what is currently available for me to use.” Talk to Me was alsopiloted in an informal educational setting with 14 SPS students in a July 2010 summer roboticscamp. Data showed high levels of engagement including 79% of the participants liking the noveland 100% liking the activities. Assessment data will be presented to explore the underlyingreasons for this engagement and indications of the content understanding that was achieved.

Huff, I., & Ellis, G. W., & McAuliffe, L., & Ellis, S. K., & McGinnis-Cavanaugh, B. (2012, June), Engaging the Imagination of Young People to Increase Technical Literacy Paper presented at 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--21289

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