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Pratt to 'Xcite' future engineers

Let's discover engineering!

Starting next spring, middle school students across the state will be able to design a solar car, assemble a solar oven, or even create an infrared wireless circuit in an after-school program designed by Duke engineers in collaboration with several federal agencies.

The program, TechXcite, includes the curriculum Discover Engineering!, which provides material spanning seven main themes of technology and science, including digital imaging, biotechnology and wireless communication.

TechXcite is based off an earlier program that co-creator Gary Ybarra, director of undergraduate studies and professor of the practice of electrical and computer engineering, developed in Rogers-Herr Middle School in 2000.

Ybarra and co-creator Paul Klenk, a research associate in electrical and computer engineering, have been developing the current program since 2001. It will allow 300 students to get hands-on training in several fields of engineering and science within the first year.

"This program is addressing a national shortage of engineers and students who are choosing to pursue careers in engineering and technology," Ybarra said.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, degrees awarded in engineering and computer sciences have declined significantly over the last 16 years, he added.

The Pratt School of Engineering has teamed up with both the North Carolina 4-H Youth Development Program and the National Science and Technology Education Partnership to launch TechXcite.

Klenk said he predicts within a year it will expand to 14 sites across the state, implemented by 4-H after-school programs and reaching approximately 300 middle school students.

Long-term plans for TechXcite include national expansion to all 50 states through the National 4-H Technology Program after five years, Ybarra said.

Klenk said one major challenge is going to be having nonengineering instructors teaching the curriculum to students.

"We're trying to bring technology that will be above what most after-school instructors are used to dealing with," he said. "Part of this program is going to be training the instructors to be comfortable with that, just as much as training the students. I think the challenge of delivering a higher-technology program in an after-school setting will be significant."

The project is funded by a $2.4-million grant over five years from the National Science Foundation. The grant will provide each of the 14-to-15 classrooms that the program will use with a kit valued at approximately $1,500, Klenk said. He added that the contents of the kit will be determined by the curriculum selected by the school.

Kate Guerdat, extension associate for the Department of 4-H Youth Development at North Carolina 4-H, said although 4-H has hundreds of other pieces of curriculum, she believes Discover Engineering! will be a valuable addition.

"What I think will be great about this engineering curriculum is that it's new, it's cutting edge, it's adding the ideas of technology and engineering," she said. "Some of the other pieces of curriculum have been around for a long time, so I think this one will be fun and hands-on, and I think the partnership between Duke and North Carolina state 4-H will get a lot of people excited to see what we can turn out."

4-H training for the program will begin in February.

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