CAD Helps Stem Student Aversion to STEM

In order for this country to compete effectively in the global economy, American educators have been charged with the daunting challenge of improving student math and science skills — even as student interest in traditional math and science courses is trending downward.

A new study by the U.S. Department of Education found that U.S. math students in grades four and eight perform consistently below peers around the world and that the trend continues into high school. Developing economies, such as China and India, are transforming into technological powerhouses, while established economic machines in Japan, South Korea, and Europe continue to present U.S. companies with real competitive challenges.

The need to confront the decline in student math and science performance has become so urgent that President Bush raised the issue in his recent State of the Union Address, during which he proposed funding for the American Competitiveness Initiative, a program designed to promote innovation and create opportunity by providing young people with a stronger foundation in math and science. Many school districts are altering their curriculums by pushing algebra and college preparatory science classes down into the middle school grades. Educators across the country are introducing new ideas, techniques, and approaches in the hope of inspiring, exciting, and recruiting young people to dedicate their career pursuits in needing a strong foundation in math, science, and technology.

But focusing on a “pure” math and science education is not the only way to improve math and science skills and may have even contributed to today’s growing competitive crisis. There are certainly many students that benefit from conventional approaches to math and science education, but there is also a growing percentage — some might argue a majority — of students who not only fail to acquire the necessary math and science skills but also show limited interest. How many educators have heard the question, “How will I use this in everyday life when I am an adult?”

CAD promotes STEM education

Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) instruction is an emerging movement in American education. Not surprisingly, the National Science Foundation (NSF) supports the movement. The STEM concept recognizes that global competitiveness requires technological literacy among today’s students to ensure the success of tomorrow’s employees, entrepreneurs, and business leaders. A core STEM component is to integrate “pure” math and science with the disciplines to which they will ultimately be applied, to use technology applications as a means for generating interest in and acquisition of math and science skills.

At Westborough High School, we have implemented a four-year Computer-Aided Design (CAD) curriculum to expose our students to tools used in commercial and scientific research settings and instill greater curiosity in the underlying mathematical and scientific concepts. More than 90 percent of our students go on to college, which historically-speaking, is where most students get their first exposure to CAD technology. We believe that by exposing our students to 3-D CAD in grades 9-12 we will not only better prepare them for college but also give them a better appreciation of how science, technology, engineering, and math are practically applied in real-world settings. Our students gain a greater understanding of why math and science are important and can see first-hand how mathematical and scientific concepts are applied to solve real problems.

In the CAD I course, students learn mechanical drawing concepts using 2-D CAD tools. In CAD II, III, and IV, students use the SolidWorks® 3-D CAD system to develop geometric designs that range from the simple to the complex. In CAD II, students learn the basics of solid modeling and participate in a design challenge, in which they use Lego® pieces and three of their own custom-designed parts to create a functional design. In CAD III, we conduct the same project but introduce more advanced concepts, such as using a bill of materials (BOM) to designate everything needed to manufacture an assembly. In CAD IV, the design challenge requires students to model parts found in VEX® robotic kits, purchased at Radio Shack, to build more complex, often remote-controlled, wireless assemblies. In all of these CAD-based courses, students encounter the need to think through mathematical problems — using primarily geometry and algebra.

Our future plans are to use three more of the SolidWorks Student Edition software:

  1. COSMOSWorks®
  2. COSMOSMotion®
  3. COSMOSFloWorks®

which all qualify as analysis software, to conduct stress/strain, kinematics, and computational flow dynamics (CFD) studies on student designs. These programs utilize and reinforce concepts encountered in a physics course. For example, a student can use COSMOSFloWorks to improve the speed of a CO2-powered car by studying the car’s aerodynamics and modifying the design to eliminate drag.

Encouraging students to maximize their potential

By using CAD technology to grab and retain student interest, we accomplish two goals: we help the students already successful academically to add another dimension to their skill sets and we also reach the academically-challenged students who have potential that may have gone undiscovered without the catalyst that CAD technology can provide. We have to remember that we are teaching students who have grown up playing computer video games, surfing the Internet, and building their own Web sites. In many ways, their computer skills are far superior to those of most adults. CAD technology is not a toy, but it is a tool that feels familiar to young people and lets them apply computer skills to discover important things about their world, things they may not have encountered without it.

It also brings students from different academic levels into the same setting, which encourages the development of social skills. I have students in my CAD course who are taking advanced classes (AP) but who struggle with knowledge application. I also have students who, although they did not succeed academically in the past, embraced the CAD program, which helped them to do better in other classes.

We also extend our application-based approach by using CAD to complete community service projects, such as taking a floor plan for the school building and creating an emergency exit plan diagram that is posted in every classroom. We did a similar project for the squad cars of our local police department. In short, CAD technology provides opportunities to show students math and science applications, to which many students relate better than they do to the abstract concepts alone.

Resources for building a CAD-based program

Educators who want to build their own CAD-based curriculums have a wealth of public and private resources to access. At Westborough, we purchased 20 networked computer stations and 10 licenses of SolidWorks Student Edition software outright, and utilized an NSF-funded STEM grant to acquire 10 additional SolidWorks licenses, which enabled us to support the entire lab and establish the class. STEM grants are available for software and hardware purchases through NSF.

SolidWorks Corporation is also offering CAD software grants to as many as 1,000 U.S. educators in support of STEM-based education initiatives. The SolidWorks-STEM Educators grant includes a copy of SolidWorks Student Edition software; a prepared curriculum and courseware on CD; an online course that demonstrates how educators can incorporate 3-D geometry with science, technology, engineering, and math concepts; 20 hours of step-by-step tutorials; access to the SolidWorks Teacher Community Web site; and a monthly online SolidWorks-STEM symposia focusing on new approaches to math, algebra, geometry, biology, chemistry, physics, art, and economics.

Arguably, the greatest challenge in American education today is to improve student math and science skills to enhance our competitiveness in the global economy. Although the challenge looms greater, teachers now have access to new technologies and approaches for blazing new trails to lead us to that destination. By incorporating CAD-based instruction, educators can leverage another method for advancing STEM skills and generating student enthusiasm for math and science. The resources, both public and private, are available. Educators have to take the first step to help guide our young people on the journey toward a stronger foundation and greater appreciation for math and science.

CREDITS: For images of designs which students did in CAD software.

Flashlight - Alex (senior)

Tennis Ball - Steve (junior)

Hot Rod - Felipe (graduated, designed as a senior last year)

Radio - Dave (sophomore)

Jeep - Derek (junior)

Field - Greg (graduated, designed as a senior last year)

For more information on educational CAD grants, visit:
SolidWorks STEM Educators Grant
National Science Foundation
Mass STEM Collaborative

For information on technology-based education, visit:
International Educational Technology Association
TEAM – Technology Education Association of Massachusetts

Email:Rick Herbert

Rick Hebert is a CAD Instructor at Westborough High School and has helped to develop a four-year, 3D CAD-based curriculum for students in grades 9-12