Eye-opening engineering

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Deborah Lange returned to Carnegie Mellon University 23 years ago to pursue her Ph.D. in Civil and Environmental Engineering, and she’s been working to promote engineering outreach in the local community and environment ever since.

Having retired from the faculty of Carnegie Mellon in spring of 2019, her latest project is dubbed the Engineering Exploration Experience. The program takes cohorts of teens from grades 8-11 through a week of education and activities spanning each major area of engineering at Carnegie Mellon, followed by a week back in their home communities where they identify a local community partner. They then spend the school-year planning, coordinating, and carrying out a project for their community partner using the engineering skills they’ve learned. 

As STEM Outreach Coordinator for the College of Engineering, Lange coordinates with Homewood Children’s Village and the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School (PA Cyber) to bring together cohorts of around 8-10 students each. For the first week, they are joined together on campus, participating in lessons on chemical, mechanical, electrical and computer, biomedical, and civil and environmental engineering taught by faculty and graduate students at Carnegie Mellon. Lesson’s like “the physics of Kennywood” are followed by illustrative activities, including a special tour of the theme park.

After the end of the first week, the students separate into their cohorts where they are joined together with community members from their local area. For students of PA Cyber (an online school) especially, this is also a chance for them to meet and connect with peers in their community around shared or newly found interests.

“This project brings kids together to work in a group and teaches them that engineering, as a profession, requires coordination with many other disciplines,” said Lange. “There’s a whole realm of opportunities, and it shows them that even if they’re not immediately inclined to be an engineer, they can still be a part of the profession.”

Community projects are currently being coordinated within the Southside and Homewood neighborhoods. In anticipation of these projects, the cohort from Homewood Childrens’ Village designed and built an environmentally sustainable dog house, with provisions for solar panels and a green roof. This might serve as a prototype for an extended project.

Now in its second year, the program has already spread outside of Pittsburgh, with a cohort from PA Cyber collaborating with Wilkes University and King’s College in Wilkes-Barre. The teens spent their first week at Wilkes University and King’s College, and will spend the school year working on a project to create combined bench and bike racks for Wilkes-Barre’s center square. They’ve also received interest from the Allentown office of PA Cyber and Penn State University.

The objective is not only to bring kids to Carnegie Mellon, it’s to bring them to the world of engineering.

Deborah Lange, Stem Outreach Coordinator, Carnegie Mellon University

“PA Cyber students spent two weeks learning about engineering programs, project management, and public policy,” said PA Cyber CEO Brian Hayden. “It was an extraordinary opportunity for our students, one that I believe has opened their eyes and minds to new possibilities” 

Lange has been pleased at the impact the program has had on the teens participating, their parents, and the communities they live in. Her goal is to continue expanding the program, both at Carnegie Mellon and beyond, and to work better to understand the impact the program can have in expanding young students’ horizons. 

“Becoming an engineer is actually secondary to the mission. We want them know that pretty much everything around them was engineered,” she said. “The objective is not only to bring kids to Carnegie Mellon, it’s to bring them to the world of engineering—and to ultimately have something that stands in the community that they can look at and say ‘I helped create that.’ “

During her time at Carnegie Mellon, Deborah Lange has been the Executive Director of the Western Pennsylvania Brownfields center, as well as the Executive Director of the Steinbrenner Institute of Environmental Education and Research.