STEM K-12 Outreach as the Root of Transportation Education: Experiences from the Railway Engineering Field

C. Tyler Dick, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Pasi Lautala, Michigan Technological University
Bryan W. Schlake, Penn State Altoona


© National Academy of Sciences: Transportation Research Board 2019. Demand for graduates with rail transportation expertise remains strong in North America, particularly in engineering and technical fields. Over the past decade, various activities by the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-way Association and rail-focused University Transportation Centers have slowly re-established a railway engineering academic community. Railway courses are now offered at two dozen universities in the United States (U.S.), and, for the first time in decades, several universities offer specific degrees in railway engineering. Despite this progress, challenges remain, such as raising student awareness of rail industry career paths. Since most railway engineering courses are senior-level electives, many students are already committed to other engineering disciplines before they are exposed to railway concepts. To raise student interest in rail courses and satisfy industry demands for internships, students must be introduced to railway concepts before they decide on the direction of their studies. One approach to directing more rail-aware students into engineering programs is rail-themed outreach to K-12 students. Railways still hold a fascination for many young people as complex, multidisciplinary systems, and numerous interesting science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) concepts can be demonstrated through the lens of railway transportation. Interactive rail-themed classroom activities can illustrate STEM topics while highlighting rail career opportunities and reinforcing railway transportation. This paper reviews rail-themed K-12 STEM outreach activities being undertaken by universities and the strong partnerships between industry and academia required to grow future generations of railway professionals.