They have a furnished office, but pay no rent; they staff a reception desk but can’t see its visitors; they lead discussion sections but never hear participants’ voices. Yet from the lofty heights of their 13th-floor virtual office at “Tapped In,” an Internet site, members of UW-Madison’s student chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) extend their college knowledge to students and teachers around the world.
“It is a way of combining knowledge without the restrictions of physical distance,” says Nikki Mattson, SWE outreach chair.
Funded by SRI International and the National Science Foundation, Tapped In is an online community of more than 7,800 kindergarten through high school educators, staff and researchers. They meet at the site to engage in professional development programs and collaborate with colleagues, says Judi Fusco, a researcher and online community developer at Tapped In.
“Traditionally teachers are isolated from their peers during the work day, and have little access to, or support for, the kinds of informal learning opportunities that most of us take for granted,” she says. “At times they are extremely isolated, as in the case of the lone calculus teacher in a small high school whose peers may not even be located in the same town.” Tapped In fills that gap by providing a forum for educators to access and discuss teaching resources and strategies with their peers.
The site’s director, Mark Schlager, got Wisconsin researchers interested in Tapped In, and Industrial and Systems Engineering Associate Professor Barrett Caldwell discovered it through a research collaboration with the National Institute for Science Education. He felt SWE could add another dimension to the site, and encouraged SWE President Katie Emery to consider volunteering. “Our SWE chapter has a strong history of outreach and chapter strength and cohesion,” he says. “They have wanted to bring a broader message of outreach, but engineering undergrads can’t take the time to visit every school district in Wisconsin in person.”
SWE outreach programs include giving presentations to students statewide in grades K-12, sponsoring student educational programs and campus visits, and mentoring high school seniors and incoming freshmen.
The “E-venture” is SWE’s first Internet-based outreach attempt. “Our Tapped In work brings our nationally recognized outreach programs into the new millennium,” says Mattson. “It is a very low-cost program, since all we need is volunteers and a computer, yet it gives us the opportunity to reach out to people around the world.”
Currently eight SWE members volunteer at the site for a total of 27 hours per month. They staff the “reception” desk, where they answer questions about how to use Tapped In or navigate the site, and lend their expertise in “Ask-An-Engineer” discussions. During the regular sessions, a SWE member fields questions on the day’s topic. Conducted in a chat-room format, the sessions’ themes include students’ high school to college transition, outreach ideas, aerospace, women in technical careers, and human factors.
“It’s basically what we do when we do our outreaches to high schools, except that we have our notes typed ahead of time,” says Emery. One of the “Ask-An-Engineer” experts, she has an arsenal of already-typed answers to frequently asked questions. Engineering mechanics student Mattson says that in her aerospace session, teachers have asked her to comment on a school’s new curriculum. “I have also made contact with a teacher that is doing a mission-to-Mars project,” she says.
Fusco says the SWE members’ involvement will be valuable to many of Tapped In’s users. “One of the biggest problems in education is just lack of dialogue. If the SWE folks can contribute to helping students or teachers understand what will better prepare them for a successful career in engineering, this will be a major contribution.”
Mattson hopes to add the Tapped In volunteer work to SWE’s list of long-term projects. “I see this as a permanent program,” she says. “I see freshmen becoming involved and learning the ropes. Then as they progress in their college career, they can teach incoming students. I see this program growing with time. I also see volunteers staying involved after they graduate.”