Muskin leads charge in engineering outreach
At Booker T. Washington Elementary School in Champaign, eighth grade students are paired up with small groups of kindergarteners to build their own bouncy balls.
The older kids were trained beforehand, and guided their younger counterparts through the steps. This is part of the educational outreach Joe Muskin provides to schools not only in Champaign-Urbana, but across the state.
Muskin is the education coordinator for the MechSE Department, which means he conducts engineering outreach for students from kindergarten through high school.
“I kind of have the best job because with a lot of these activities I can go into a classroom, and it’s the coolest thing they’ve done all year, and they remember it,” Muskin said.
But his job doesn’t stop there. He also works with educators on teaching methods, helps coordinate summer camps, writes articles, speaks at conferences, sets up research opportunities for students and teachers, and helps MechSE professors and student groups with activities and outreach.
With everything he has going on, Muskin doesn’t have a “typical” day on the job, and his reach has grown since he began in the position.
In the beginning, he worked heavily with the Nano-CEMMS grant (Nanoscale Chemical-Electrical-Mechanical-Manufacturing Systems), doing outreach and developing curricula with local schools. When that grant ended, he continued working for the MechSE Department. Now much of his work is for the ASPIRE (Automation Supporting Prolonged Independent Residence for the Elderly) project and the new POETS Center (Power Optimization of Electro-Thermal Systems).
Since the Nano-CEMMS days, the activities and programs Muskin has developed have stretched past the surrounding communities, with connections at Chicago magnet schools and with Missouri teacher groups.
“Starting out, I didn’t think we would be able to have such a robust program and reach out to so many schools and so many teachers,” Muskin said.
MechSE assistant professor Gaurav Bahl and his students have worked closely with Muskin, through outreach activities at local elementary, middle, and high schools.
“It’s a unique opportunity to distill the science down into something that is more digestible by a broader audience,” Bahl said. “Especially for students who are interested in science but don’t get that much exposure to more interesting hands-on projects.”
The connections Muskin has made helps more than just the young students in the classrooms he visits. Three of Bahl’s graduate students have received National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships, thanks in part to Muskin’s programs.
“Without the outreach component, you can’t win an NSF fellowship, and Joe has been indispensable in those outreach efforts,” Bahl said.
Muskin’s goal through outreach is to give students a fun and realistic view of what engineering is really like. Often, their only experience with engineering is through the guise of competition. In activities such as the egg drop and making mouse trap cars, students have one shot at coming up with a solution. Muskin said the stress of competition and the inability to learn from their mistakes often turns students away from engineering. He wants to show students the collaborative nature of engineering and combat the stereotype that it’s a solitary profession.
“In fact, engineering is kind of the coolest job you can have. You’re paid good money to invent, and what kid doesn’t want to invent something? We want to get more in line with what engineering really is,” Muskin said.