Fall-Winter 2014 Melander

  • Putting children at forefront of engineering education

    Putting children at forefront

In both the classes she teaches and her extension work across Nebraska, Jenny Melander is teaching engineering students valuable life lessons as they work to improve learning environments for children.
By her own estimation, a lot of Jenny Melander’s work day is focused on her kids.

Nearly 80 percent of the time, those kids are K-12 students from across the state. Melander, an assistant professor of biological systems engineering, reaches out in her role as a science literacy expert through Nebraska Extension.

In the other 20 percent of her job, Melander teaches current Nebraska Engineering students some of the basics of the profession of biological systems engineering.

Running through both aspects of her work is also teaching both sets of students the importance of learning life lessons and having fun along the way.

"One of the things I talk about with K-12 teachers, one of the biggest reasons that their students should be doing engineering, is that it gives us a way to celebrate creativity and failure,” Melander said. “That sounds weird, but being able to help kids learn to accept failure and learn from it is a good thing. Along with creative thinking, valuing failure is a huge part of engineering.

“It also gives us a way to encourage students by helping them realize that just because you’ve failed at something doesn’t mean you’re horrible and awful or you shouldn’t keep pursuing it. It’s all about, ‘What have you learned from this and how can you move forward with that?’”

Her work with young students includes problem solving through robotics, building with Legos and creating their own wearable technologies.

“We’ve really focused on the fourth-to-sixth grade range, kind of late elementary-early middle school,” Melander said. “That’s where the research shows you have to be catching these kids early so they get those technical paths in high school so they can follow into the technology fields.”

To help reach in younger children, Melander has involved the students in her Introduction to Biomedical Engineering (BSEN 317) class at UNL.

Working with Krista Adams, assistant professor of Teaching, Learning and Teacher Education, Melander breaks up her class into teams that work in Lincoln Public Schools’ 21 Century CLCs (Community Learning Centers). The focus is on after-school programs for children of lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Melander said her UNL students teach science and engineering to the kids and learn many important lessons – such as the importance of what it’s like to work with clients and people of different backgrounds in the professional world and what effects they can have on others’ lives.

“Engineers as a whole get a bad rap for not being able to communicate. This is trying to build in some of those skills and helping our students see what kind of impact they can have in that type of a community outreach setting,” Melander said.

“They’re surprised how much of an impact this does have, especially with my male students going into these second-grade classrooms and being a role model. They’re also surprised how they (the second-graders) latch on to male role models, especially the students who maybe don’t have that in their home life. It’s been really cool.”

The 40 or so students who pack into a medium-sized classroom in Chase Hall also get a one-semester overview of the biomedical engineering field and how enjoyable an engineer’s work can be.

“It’s a junior-level survey class, but it’s a fun class. It’s cool,” Melander said. “Typically, the kids like it because we do field trips around town to places like Nebraska Heart Hospital, and we bring in lots of guest speakers to give a real-life perspective.”

One of those speakers is BSE alum Megan Moore, who fits patients with orthotics and prosthetics in her job with Hanger Clinic in Omaha. During a recent visit to Melander’s class, Moore explained the science and practical applications of the devices and materials that are used in her field and then showed two students how 3D computer imaging is used to make custom orthotics.

“Everybody loves it when Megan brings in her toys,” Melander said. “With all the speakers, the kids see it’s really neat, cutting-edge stuff that they can be doing, too.”

Melander said her teaching involves “a class and a half,” with the “half” being her teaching four lab sections of Engineering Properties of Biological Materials (AGEN 225), aka “Potato Lab.”

“Potatoes are very easy, accessible biological material,” Melander said. “They’re cheap and easy to manipulate. If we need a cylindrical specimen, you can punch a core out of a potato pretty easily.

“I think students learn more when they enjoy themselves and when they know what they’re doing really does matter,” Melander said. “I think there’s a mix on them seeing the benefits. Some are starting to realize that we’re communicating in a way that will be useful down the road. We’re not always going to communicate with just engineers or management or clients and patients. Engineers solve problems and make the world better.”