Inspiring Future Engineers One Outreach Event at a Time

Thanks to outreach efforts, the Cockrell School engages with more than 9,000 K-12 students annually. Along the way, we're helping to reverse the nation's declining math and science trend.

The Cockrell School of Engineering hosts more than 20 percent of activites at Explore UT, an annual outreach event at The University of Texas at Austin campus.

The Cockrell School of Engineering hosts more than 20 percent of activites at Explore UT, an annual outreach event at The University of Texas at Austin campus.

Maria Puckett grew up wanting to be a lawyer until the world of engineering was revealed to her in the sixth grade.

The young girl from East Texas attended a free K-12 outreach summer camp at the Cockrell School of Engineering hosted by the Women in Engineering Program (WEP). Through hands-on projects led by Cockrell School students, like competitions to build the largest deck of cards or to float pennies in a hand-made aluminum boat, she and other 12-year-olds learned there’s more to engineering than just math and science.

“Before then, I didn’t know the breadth of what you can do in engineering or how far it reached everyday life,” she said. “After the camp, I geared my thinking toward pursuing it and started taking the right classes.”

Today, Maria is in her first year as a Ph.D. student in the Cockrell School’s Biomedical Engineering Department. She’s researching innovative and noninvasive ways to detect cancer in real-time.

According to recent reports on the nation’s global competitive edge, the U.S. could use more young engineering leaders like Maria.

Through numerous K-12 outreach programs that kickoff each spring, the Cockrell School is helping reverse the nation’s declining math and science trend.

State Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin said in order for the region and state to compete in the global 21st century economy, the state’s best and brightest students must be prepared to innovate in areas like engineering, science and technology.

Maria Puckett wanted to be a lawyer until a she attended an outreach event hosted at the Cockrell School of Engineering. Now, years later, Puckett is a Ph.D. student researching ways to better detect cancer.

Maria Puckett wanted to be a lawyer until a she attended an outreach event hosted at the Cockrell School of Engineering. Now, years later, Puckett is a Ph.D. student researching ways to better detect cancer.

“I'm glad that folks at the Cockrell School are reaching out to tomorrow's innovators to show them not just the opportunities that await them in this field, but also the potential of their work to drive our economy into the future,” said Watson, who serves on Texas Senate committees overseeing Business and Commerce, Economic Development, Nominations, and Higher Education. “Such efforts will help decide whether Texas will prosper in this still young century.”

Each year the school engages with more than 9,000 K-12, pre-college students through outreach initiatives like WEP’s Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, Engineering Day at the Museum, the Edison Lecture Series presented by the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, and Explore UT, the annual open-house event during which The University of Texas at Austin showcases its educational offerings to thousands of K-12 Texas students.

At Explore UT alone, the Cockrell School hosts more than 20 percent of the campus activities. The day not only excites K-12 students about engineering, it also encourages admitted students to pursue the field at The University of Texas at Austin.

During an Explore UT outreach event in 2010, WEP hosted 66 women students who were admitted to the Cockrell School. Of the group, 53 enrolled at the school.

“Our goal is to reach as many K-12 students as we can, so that we open their eyes to the possibilities within engineering and the far-reaching impact it has in our everyday life,” said Tricia Berry, director of WEP and the Cockrell School’s coordinator for Explore UT. “If we can encourage even just one student to pursue engineering, then that’s one more student who can impact the world through this field and it’s one more student who, in the long-term, can contribute to our nation’s economic vitality.”

Creating a community of support for students

Orlando Salmon, a mechanical engineering senior at the Cockrell School, knows it takes concerted outreach initiatives to excite K-12 students about science and math.

Salmon works as a mentor for outreach events hosted by the Cockrell School’s Equal Opportunity in Engineering Program (EOE), whose mission is to increase the school’s diversity by supporting historically underrepresented population groups in Texas or students who would contribute to the school’s overall diversity. Thanks to EOE outreach events, the university ranks fourth in the nation in producing undergraduate engineering degrees for minority groups.

Salmon, a San Antonio-native, attended an EOE outreach event while in high school and experienced first-hand how it encouraged his decision to study engineering at The University of Texas at Austin. As a mentor, he hopes to give back to those prospective students who are interested in engineering but unsure of the possibilities within it.

“If we want young minds to consider science and engineering, we have to put on events that envelop them in a community that supports their math and science skills,” Salmon said. “It’s not just one event that will do the trick; it’s developing an entire community of support.”

Michelle Mohan of Killeen shares the sentiment. Last year she took 18 first through fourth graders from her local Girl Scout troop to Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, an annual outreach event hosted by WEP.

During it, the Scouts participated in hands-on projects that taught them everything from how chemical reactions work to checking weather patterns.

Mohan plans to take them back to this year’s event on Feb. 26.

“The people running the educational stations were students, so most of them were younger. [The Girl Scouts] liked that because they were able to identify with women in their late teens or early 20s and it gave them someone to look up to,” she said. “The outreach event also showed them that science can be about more than just looking under a microscope. It encouraged them to exercise their most important muscle, their bran, so that they don’t view science as merely homework for a class but as an adventure.”

"I'm glad that folks at the Cockrell School are reaching out to tomorrow's innovators to show them not just the opportunities that await them in this field, but also the potential of their work to drive our economy into the future. Such efforts will help decide whether Texas will prosper in this still young century."

— Kirk Watson
State Senator