Hofstra Horizons

Building the Dream: The Center for STEM Research at Hofstra University

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M. David Burghardt, PhD, PE, Professor of Engineering and Co-Director of the Center for STEM Research, Hofstra University

in the Spring 2015 edition of Hofstra Horizons


New Beginnings and a Chance to Dream

I arrived at Hofstra University in the fall of 1983 as professor and chair of the Engineering Department, a decision that turned out to be life changing for me, though I didn’t know it at the time. I had made a vertiginous leap from a secure, tenured position at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy to the vibrant, untenured world of Hofstra, made a little more dizzying by the fact that I was the very recently minted father of twin girls, just 9 months old. Still, I had no way to know about the far-reaching research dreams that would develop and find fulfillment here.

In addition to teaching and chairing the Engineering Department, I continued writing engineering textbooks when I came to Hofstra – there are 12 titles at this point, many still widely used in classrooms throughout the United States – and pursued my research interest in applied thermodynamics; however, I sensed that more was possible. In 1990 I created the Center for Technological Literacy, manifesting a dream I had long held to help children and teachers become better prepared for our technological world.

This dream, encouraged by Provost Herman Berliner and then-President James M. Shuart, enabled me, at first, to create and host a magnetic levitation contest at Hofstra, which was attended by close to 400 middle school students from across Long Island. I did not do this alone, of course, but worked in collaboration with colleagues, this time at Brookhaven National Laboratory, where maglev – a system of powering trains in which magnetism both lifts and propels them – was created.

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I have always honored the philosophy of Charles Darwin, who said, “In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too), those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” In addition to working with Brookhaven, we were supported by funds raised from industry, business and Hofstra alumni. We held the event at Hofstra USA for several years, with engineering students acting as facilitators and assisting the judges and the student teams.

Simultaneously in 1990, I was elected mayor of the Village of Kensington in Great Neck, which provided me with an opportunity to participate in municipal governance in a leadership role and concurrently learn about collaboration on a community level. I was re-elected four times, serving for a total of 10 years. Both this experience and my work with maglev taught me skills that would serve me well in my future research endeavors, and encourage me to dream even bigger. Thus the Center for Technological Literacy began to transform into the Center for STEM Research, with an expanding research agenda that gripped my imagination.

Banking on Collaboration and Innovation

Engineering is the “E” in STEM … My goal was to help students make better sense of mathematics and science, and to learn to use this knowledge to create solutions to improve the human-made world. The thrust of all the research I have done over the past 20 years has this sense of engineering at its heart.

Starting in 1993 and continuing to this day, the Center for STEM Research has had continuous funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), now adding up to a total of $35 million, unprecedented at Hofstra. The success of the Center is in no small part due to the creativity and dedication of the people I work with there, especially my colleague and current co-director, Michael Hacker. Mr. Hacker was serving as the New York state supervisor for technology education when we began to work together in 1993; through the projects we created together, we developed a dynamic partnership, and he joined me as co-director of the Center in 2000. As the work of the Center expanded, Lois Miceli, STEM project coordinator, joined our staff in 1997 and has been an integral part of every project since then.

Engineering is the “E” in STEM, and from my experience I knew that engineering education was a system of interconnected learning. My goal was to help students make better sense of mathematics and science, and to learn to use this knowledge to create solutions to improve the human-made world. The thrust of all the research I have done over the past 20 years has this sense of engineering at its heart.

The Center’s first major project was the NSF-funded NYSTEN (New York State Technology Education Network), which created teams of math, science and technology education teachers from across New York state to learn to use engineering design in their classrooms. In the process, the school-based teams collaborated with one another, which served to break down disciplinary boundaries and enabled them to combine the best from each field. Our project hosted 90 teachers at Hofstra for four weeks in the summer, with workshops taking place day and evening. Kate and Willy’s was a popular gathering spot! Many of the teachers went on to become leaders in their fields, ultimately heading New York state teacher organizations in the fields of math, science and technology.

At Hofstra, we involved teams of STEM faculty – drawing from the disciplines of science, mathematics and engineering – to work year-round with the STEM teacher teams, and both teachers and students reaped the benefits.

A Pivotal Project With Engineering Design at Its Heart

The NSF-funded MSTe (Math, Science, Technology Elementary) project was a collaborative endeavor with Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Laboratory and involved teams of elementary school teachers from across New York state. The heart of the project was engineering design; it applied engineering design across the STEM fields as a pedagogical strategy to improve student learning. Dr. Janice Koch (professor emeritus) and Dr. Sharon Whitton were on the Hofstra University team, with Dr. Jacqueline Grennon-Brooks (now on the Hofstra faculty) on the Stony Brook team. Many research papers grew out of this project, papers that detailed advancement in student performance and also teacher improvement, and Dr. Koch produced Science Stories, a textbook for elementary science education. Dr. Koch and I collaborated on creating the Hofstra University Master of Arts in Elementary STEM (then MST) program. But even more than that came out of this first collaborative project.

Students receiving MA degrees in STEM (2003) with thesis advisors Dr. David Burghardt, Dr. Janice Koch, and Professor Eileen Simons
Students receiving MA degrees in STEM (2003) with thesis advisors Dr. David Burghardt, Dr. Janice Koch, and Professor Eileen Simons

A New and Novel Concept: Children’s Engineering

It was during this time period that I helped create and develop the field of children’s engineering. To apply these new ideas in the classroom, I created a foundational course for the Elementary STEM master’s degree program, which I continue to teach to this day.

For most people, children’s engineering is a new concept, but it is not difficult to understand. It is very useful in the classroom, not as a separate discipline, but as a complementary one that provides the contextual learning so important to children. Further, it provides principles and activities that coordinate with STEM curricula. For example, for children to design and fabricate a toy car, a model of a whale, or a terrarium, it is not necessary that they understand the principles of statics, dynamics and strength of materials; rather they need to be able to consider the constraints and specifications of the problem statement and employ their knowledge and creativity. In the analysis portion of the design process, the children reflect on their design’s performance, applying their knowledge of scientific principles and mathematical conceptualizations.

Typically, engineering links most closely with the physical sciences, but the elementary program predominantly focuses on life and earth sciences and the human body; so teachers must interconnect not only with the physical sciences – e.g., electricity, magnetism and simple machines – but also with living things. They do so by designing models of ants and butterflies, homes for snails, everyday plants and animals. In creating the models, students need to understand and apply their knowledge of, say, the rain forest – its structure and the various plants and animals that live at its different levels. The design itself, for example, may require scaling a 150-foot tree down to 15 inches, or an anthropoid from 10 centimeters to 30.

In addition to running these grant projects, I guided many teachers on their action research theses as they were completing the MA in STEM and taught them how to use engineering design principles and practices to help improve their students’ learning in math, science and language arts, all the while counseling them on how engineering design could be employed in the classroom to create a wide variety of successful learning outcomes.

I continue to be very active in the field of children’s engineering, now called K-12 engineering, and recently served on a National Academy of Engineering initiative that defined and disseminated its goals.

Creating a Transformative Project and Winning a New Grant

As the field of STEM education matured, my experience with interconnected learning enabled the Center to win another NSF grant, this time for $11.5 million, the biggest grant Hofstra had ever achieved. We called this MSTP (Math, Science, Technology Education Partnership), and it proved to be a project with a large budget and even greater expectations. MSTP was a collaborative venture with Stony Brook University, Brookhaven National Laboratory and 10 under-performing school districts. Our focus was improving middle school student performance in STEM, and, in many instances, we were able to move schools from substandard performance in mathematics to acceptable levels of achievement by their students. At Hofstra, we involved teams of STEM faculty – drawing from the disciplines of science, mathematics and engineering – to work year-round with the STEM teacher teams, and both teachers and students reaped the benefits. For example, by the end of the project, every single district in the program achieved acceptable performance levels for their students; teachers were collaborating within the schools; and Hofstra faculty had gained new pedagogical perspectives that they were able to apply in their own classrooms. From a research perspective, we developed a new model for high-quality professional development and a great deal of data that helped us better understand what works and what doesn’t with regard to infusing mathematics into science and engineering technology education classes and developing reliable measures of student performance.

Hofstra and Stony Brook STEM faculty and school district teachers worked together in school-based MSTP teams.
Hofstra and Stony Brook STEM faculty and school district teachers worked together in school-based MSTP teams.

Diving Deeply into Interconnected Learning

An NSF research project follow-on to the MSTP project, MiSP (Math Infusion in Science Project) enabled us to explore how to create rich and meaningful interconnected learning experiences in middle school science, to improve science learning, and to deepen math learning and performance. We worked with 10 districts on Long Island and in New York City, developing replacement science curricula that were rich in algebraic math content, content that aligned with science laboratory data analysis. Dr. Beverly Clendening of the Biology Department, co-principal investigator, took the lead in creating the activities and running workshops to show teachers how to use them in their classrooms. The teachers were encouraged to see themselves as researchers, and the implementation of the units was very consistent across schools, all of which was verified by researcher visits during times of instruction. MiSP was a big data project, bringing us information from both comparison and experimental groups and from 30+ teachers. About 3,000 students were involved, and we assessed multiple forms of data gleaned from implementing six activities as well as from state standardized tests for each cohort.

For the past 15 years, I have been collaborating with Dr. Deborah Hecht of the CUNY Center for Advanced Study in Education, who leads the evaluation and research efforts, and we are continuing to report on our findings. One of the questions we are in the process of answering is whether there is a benefit to interconnected learning beyond improvement in the content matter being studied. For example, since we infused math into science, we expected to find improvement in math and science understanding and performance on standardized test scores, and we did; 1 + 1 = 2. But we wondered if there was a way for us to measure changes in basic student perception of linking disciplines, in other words, interdisciplinary thinking beyond content: 1 + 1 > 2. We have discovered that the richness of interconnected learning relates to measuring the value of the inequality, and we will soon be publishing results demonstrating this finding. This evaluation requires sophisticated statistical analysis of multilayered, nuanced data, measures we have obtained as a result of this project.

From a research perspective, we developed a new model for high-quality professional development and a great deal of data that helped us better understand what works and what doesn’t with regard to infusing mathematics into science and engineering technology education classes…

Moving Children’s Engineering to the Fore: Gaining Gates Foundation Funding

One day a professor at the University of Virginia, an expert in instructional technology, reached out to me to say she was seeking my children’s engineering expertise for a project she had in mind. This was the start of my productive journey to the Gates Foundation. I visited UVA and lectured about children’s engineering to faculty from the Schools of Engineering and Education. It was there that I met a new colleague, Dr. Jennie Chiu, with whom I have been collaborating ever since. We worked on designing an online learning environment, which we called WISEngineering, a concept we adapted from an existing online science platform used at the University of California, Berkeley. The initial call from Dr. Chiu at UVA related to using digital fabrication in the classroom, and the math activities we created employed this fabrication technique along with computer design software readily understood by fifth graders, all embedded within an engineering design challenge. Soon after, Dr. Chiu, Dr. Hecht and I won a Gates Foundation grant to work with two middle schools in Paterson, New Jersey. The results were astoundingly positive, not only in regard to math improvement, but also in terms of social mediation.

A digitally fabricated model building, created by students as part of the Gates Foundation project, which met the design challenge volume and surface area specifications
A digitally fabricated model building, created by students as part of the Gates Foundation project, which met the design challenge volume and surface area specifications

We analyzed why this might be, and found that children in these tough schools who did not talk to one another were, however, willing and able to collaborate on math-based engineering design projects. The Hofstra team included Dr. Xiang Fu, from Computer Science, and Donna Migdol, a math teacher from Oceanside, New York, who had worked with us on the MSTe project. Ms. Migdol is also an adjunct faculty member in the Hofstra School of Education. Dr. Fu assisted us with the online learning environment, as Ms. Migdol, Dr. Chiu and I worked on the curriculum, which Ms. Migdol then piloted with students from Oceanside. We also traveled frequently to Paterson to provide professional development for the teachers. One of the teachers from Paterson created a video for us, and it is available for viewing on the Center’s website. During this project, I became aware of the Boys & Girls Club of Paterson, which offers after-school programming to children in the Paterson schools and also provides services during the school day. Intrigued, I reached out to nearby Boys & Girls Clubs to see if together we might find a way to improve student learning in an informal setting, one that exists outside the classroom. I had an idea that this might be a way to reach more young learners, and I was excited to find a way to make it work.

And the Dream Continues

In the children’s engineering class I was teaching at Hofstra that semester, I found out that one of the students worked at the local Glen Cove Boys & Girls Club, and this provided an introduction for me to Melissa Rhodes, executive director of the club. Ms. Rhodes welcomed my proposal to volunteer to develop and implement STEM activities with the children at the club. During summer camp at the club, the pizza box oven, great for making s’mores, was the hit activity, and Ms. Rhodes and I became part of a team seeking grant funding. During this time, I returned to Dr. Fu, who worked with me as I created the Boys and Girls Club activities, and he continuously adapted and refined the WISEngineering environment for our new idea.

The idea worked. This summer we won a $2.5 million NSF grant to develop and implement engineering-based STEM activities for 25 Boys & Girls Clubs in the metropolitan New York area. The grant, which we call WGG (Wise Guys & Gals — Boys & Girls as WISEngineering STEM Learners), will enable us to work with over 6,000 middle school-aged children, gathering data about their learning in the WISEngineering online learning environment. Once again, this will be a collaborative effort. I am serving as the principal investigator, while Dr. Fu, Ms. Rhodes, Dr. Margaret Hunter (associate professor of engineering at Hofstra), and Ken White (of Brookhaven Labs) are co-principal investigators. Dr. Hecht will lead the evaluation/research effort.

WGG has many innovative projects and principles that will engage the target population, middle school-aged children. It will provide them with engineering design challenges that will be completed both virtually and physically. Each individual design challenge will require the application of engineering thinking and STEM knowledge linked to the Common Core Math Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards. WGG will provide these activities through the WISEngineering online learning environment, which will guide the children through mini-challenges and present simulations to help them develop the knowledge and skills needed to complete their design challenges. Embedded multimedia links will provide real-world examples and help the children make community connections while also supporting additional learning.

Further, an online design portfolio will be used to record and save work, and a Facebook-like sharing feature will allow for increased collaboration and group work. The hands-on building and testing of the design will be seamlessly connected with this computer-based work as students record what they have learned and upload pictures of their design. It is important to note that WISEngineering is not a computer game, computer tutorial, or external tool, but rather an integrated, interactive, innovative online learning environment that expands the possible work that children can do during an informal STEM activity, connects the strengths of virtual design and physical modeling, and facilitates collaboration.

The research team will study how a blended-learning environment using carefully coordinated hands-on and online activities can support informal STEM learning, employ specifically designed tests to analyze why particular activities are successful, and develop guidelines for the use of materials developed through the program. Just like our earlier project, MiSP, this is a big data project, and keystroke information will be recorded.

It is our goal to make a significant contribution to the understanding of STEM learning in informal environments through this research project. And it is my hope to continue to dream big dreams at Hofstra and to find ways to make these dreams a reality.

M. David Burghardt, PhD, PE, is professor of engineering and co-director of the Center for STEM Research at Hofstra University. He graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy with a BS in marine engineering and sailed in the Merchant Marine, traveling around the world as a student and then as an engineering officer. He later attended the University of Connecticut and earned a master’s degree and PhD in mechanical engineering there, then taught at the Academy for 12 years before joining the Hofstra faculty, where he served as chair of both the Engineering and Computer Science departments.
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