What Is Engineering? Learn About Engineering Through a MOOC

The Huffington Post

April 27, 2015

By Vicki May

What words comes to mind when you think about engineering? If you are like most people, words that come to mind include difficult and boring. In a study about teen perceptions of engineering, the most common word that teens used to describe engineering was difficult; boring was also popular among teens who knew little about engineering. Encouragingly, teens who had been exposed to engineering also used words like cool and gratifying. The study also found that most teens don't know much about engineering. When asked to explain what engineers do, people often report that engineers build bridges, buildings, and machines (assuming they don't say that engineers drive trains) but most people can't provide many details beyond that. And how about the difference between architects and engineers? Architects are creative and engineers crunch numbers, right? Hmm, I am an engineer and I do like to crunch numbers but I also love to be creative and engineering provides plenty of opportunities for me to be creative.

A desire to help people of all ages, particularly K12 students, better understand engineering led me to develop a massive open online course, or MOOC. MOOCs are online courses offered by universities for free to the public. Each class is typically taken by thousands of people from around the world. While close one-on-one interaction between the instructor and students is not possible with so many students in each course, rich online discussions between students from around the world are possible. And while students don't typically get university credit for courses, they can earn a certificate and will soon be able to earn credit for certain courses.

I am currently developing a MOOC entitled The Engineering of Structures Around Us, which will start on May 5, 2015. The course is targeted at high school students and others interested in better understanding engineering and the structures around them, from bridges and buildings in their communities to famous structures around the world. Why and how are structures designed? How do they support loads? And where do forces flow through them? What is the difference between an engineer and an architect? These are some of the questions we'll explore in the course. While the course includes some math, basic geometry and algebra, most of the concepts are accessible by anyone - you can skip the math if you wish though I hope some people find they like the math too.

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