Family Engineering Inspires Students (and Mom and Dad)

Family Engineering
Family Engineering

The full professor has come full circle.

Neil Hutzler, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Michigan Technological University, has published broadly, advised numerous PhD students, and performed research for more than three decades. Now, he is using his expertise to develop new engineers a couple of generations younger than him.

He’s developing a Family Engineering program with Joan Chadde, K-12 education and outreach coordinator for Tech’s Center for Science and Environmental Outreach, along with the Foundation for Family Science, the American Society for Engineering Education and the Boston Museum of Science.

Supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the program helps families work together to discover what engineering is, how to solve engineering problems and hopefully inspire some youngsters to pursue education and careers in engineering. Typically, families gather at community schools in the evenings to do hands-on engineering activities being developed by the family engineering team.

The sessions involve a dozen activities, like “Are You an Engineer?” in which participants are asked if they played with Legos (mechanical), or created concoctions (chemical), “until everyone has raised their hand at least once,” Hutzler says.

Other activities reveal nature’s inspiration for modern engineering marvels: the Common Burdock burrs begat Velcro; the octopus, the suction cup; the kingfisher, bullet-train design, and more.

Moms, dads, and kids build cantilevers with dominos, discover laminates’ strength with note cards in an activity called “Glue is the Clue,” and create towers of spaghetti and marshmallows that can withstand strong winds.

“We have them reverse-engineer a retractable ballpoint pen,” Hutzler says. “First, they put it together alone and then they put it together using an assembly-line process, timing the difference between the two.”

The need for the program certainly exists, according to Hutzler. Recent research has revealed that
• Eighty-five percent of students aged 8–17 are not interested in a engineering career.
• Only 20 percent of parents have or will encourage their children to consider an engineering career.
• Universities in the United States had 11 percent fewer engineering graduates in 2005 than in 1985.
• High-tech companies have been issuing the “crisis warning” about engineering shortages for at least two decades.

And parents are vitally important to students’ attitudes towards—and success with— science, math, and the careers that come from studying them.

Hoping to change that, the three-year Family Engineering program has completed pilot testing and launched a website ( 

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Hutzler says, although he admits at first wondering if he should get involved with youngsters as he nears the end of his career. “Joan and I have put on eight family engineering programs in the past six month, and it’s great to see families working together, learning about and enjoying solving engineering problems.”

The Family Engineering program is an outgrowth of Michigan Tech's Center for Science and Environmental Outreach family science night program that began in 1997 and reaches more than 2,000 elementary students and parents at more than fifteen events held each year all over the western U.P.

“Joan and I thought,’ why not a family engineering program’ that capitalizes on Tech’s engineering expertise?” explains Hutzler. The sessions are normally held in the evening, and the local activities involve Tech students and have attracted as many as 200 schoolchildren. The first pilot programs last spring also were tested in North Carolina, Oregon and Detroit, some targeting underrepresented students.

More than 60 activities have been created. “Some of the activities have been through four iterations. Some we threw out; sometimes we thought up new ones like ‘Cleaning Up the Yuck’ and ‘Hot Chocolate Machine,’” Hutzler says.

The next step, in 2010, he says, is professional development and volunteer training, so facilitators host the events without supervision from Tech or fellow sponsors. This will ensure that the directions in the guidebooks are clear. Also, evaluators from Western Michigan University will assess how the programs are going, looking at evaluations.

Publication of a Family Engineering Activity Guide is planned for Spring 2011, and to spread the good word about engineering to parents and future engineers via the new network of trained volunteers.

“It seems to be working,” Hutzler says. “Everyone who attends said they would recommend it to a friend. It has to be fun to keep them engaged after a day at school or work, and they are surprised with the way they figure things out.”

Hutzler acknowledged that it would be hard to track the overall impact of the program, “but if NSF wants to give us a ten-year grant to find out . . .”

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.