By Vett Vandiver
In 2007, Caitlin Henegar left her small hometown of Trenton, Ga., to come to the big city and earn a Georgia Tech Mechanical Engineering degree. Although she’s still in Atlanta working on her Ph.D. in Bioengineering, she hasn’t forgotten northwest Georgia. In fact, she’s hoping to inspire young students in Trenton and other rural communities to follow in her footsteps.
That’s why Henegar founded Small Town Engineering (STE), an outreach program that targets middle and high school students in smaller communities in Georgia and Alabama. She and STE partner Kevin Bandy, a former Georgia Tech student, work together to create engineering-inspired and hands-on lesson plans for teachers, visit schools and speak with students about how math, science and engineering can be fun and interesting fields to explore. They work with teachers to ensure that students continue to have an interest in engineering in the future.
Henegar says students in small towns are often at a disadvantage when it comes to engineering.
“Not only are they not targeted by other outreach groups, but they also miss out on more hands-on learning opportunities,” she said. “Another reason is due to the size of these towns. Since they are small, the mentality of the community is often very similar. Students are not exposed to a wide variety of ideas and ways of thinking that might otherwise be found in a large city.”
Henegar also says students in rural communities have limited access to new, exciting technology, especially if they live in low income areas.
The initiative began in August of 2011. STE has made four school visits (three in Alabama and one in Georgia). Future plans include integrating with the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Education Coalition to create a rotation system that will increase the number of school visits and lesson plans. The response from both teachers and students affected by STE has been very positive.
“When we go to the schools, the kids get so excited for the hands-on activities,” said Henegar. “We’re not only teaching them about math and science, but also showing them what opportunities exist outside of their environment. We want to encourage students to attend and complete college in the math, science and engineering fields.”
During their classroom visits, STE has had 95-percent student engagement during hands-on activities that range from building products to looking at microfluidic bacteria. One challenge that the young students often deal with is having the confidence to pursue a college degree.
“The mentality of the teachers and parents needs to be one of encouragement to help build the students’ confidence,” said Henegar. She tries to tie in her PhD research with the lesson plans to show the students how engineering includes small-scale and large-scale concepts.
Juggling the STE responsibilities with her Ph.D. work is difficult, but Henegar says it’s worth it.
“I really enjoy working with the kids and getting them excited about math and science like I was as a grade school student,” she added. “I’m happy to show younger students the importance of furthering their education for a great career and opening their minds to the world beyond their small town.”
- Vett Vandiver is a communications student assistant with the Georgia Institute of Technology