Texas Tech University

Tanja Karp

2014 Texas Tech Integrated Scholar

Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Whitacre College of Engineering

Tanja KarpA key inspiration comes for interacting with students in grades K-8 during the GEAR LEGO robotics competition. Seeing the excitement among these students, how they improve their critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and teamwork skills, and how much they enjoy the events, motivates me to offer the competition year after year.

Robotics outreach, education research and service learning are key components to the integrated scholarship of Tanja Karp, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. For more than a decade, Karp has developed and promoted outreach efforts in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Essential to this focus has been the Get Excited About Robotics (GEAR) program, which she launched in 2007 as a LEGO robotics-based competition for area students. GEAR has also provided an opportunity for Texas Tech engineering students to serve the community. Freshmen enrolled in Karp's service learning course meet with and mentor student teams that are participating in the GEAR program. Karp's findings from her outreach efforts have provided a basis for research in STEM education, particularly as it pertains to student retention. The topic has additionally enabled Karp to collaborate with faculty across disciplines on her research. She is a member of the Texas Tech Teaching Academy and faculty adviser to the Society of Women Engineers, in addition to serving on university committees. In 2012 Karp received the Whitacre College of Engineering's Butler Distinguished Educator Fellow Award, and the Harriet B. Rigas Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Education Society.

Learn more about Integrated Scholar Tanja Karp in this question-and-answer session.

What are your research objectives and interests?

Currently, my major research interests lie in the field of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education with particular emphasis on engineering. Among students in elementary and middle school, I focus on creating an interest in STEM careers through exciting hands-on activities, and on providing role models, particularly to those students who do not have any engineers in their family to aim after. At the high school level my objective is to better prepare students for successful careers in engineering.

With respect to TTU undergraduate students, my efforts are directed toward increasing the retention of engineering students within engineering programs through teaching pedagogies, such as service learning and active learning, that provide them with hands-on, real-world experiences early on in class, teaches them 21st century skills, and prepares them for mentoring opportunities and part-time employment in their field of studies in their second year on campus. The major tools to achieve all these goals are currently robotics challenges. Through my work with the community and teachers, I have also become interested in the various aspects of community engagement and the role it plays for an institution of higher education.

What types of service projects have you been involved with?

Since 2006 I have been the organizer of the Get Excited About Robotics (GEAR) competition at TTU. GEAR is an eight-week LEGO robotics challenge for elementary and middle school students during which student teams build and program LEGO robots (using the MINDSTORMS NXT/EV3 kits) to perform specified tasks. The competition is open to all elementary and middle schools, as well as to after-school organizations, such as 4-H clubs, at no cost, and students participate through their schools/club. To solve the challenge, students learn engineering skills through a teaming exercise in designing, building, programming, testing and troubleshooting wheeled LEGO robots that perform and compete on a 4-foot-by-8-foot field. GEAR itself (www.gearrobotics.org) is a nonprofit 501(c)3 volunteer organization that was created to foster interest among today's youth in a career in engineering, science or technology. It provides the game rules for the annual competition together with instructions on how to build game tables and pieces. GEAR tournaments are held at various locations in Texas.

The LEGO robots are easily assembled from parts included in the LEGO MINDSTORMS kit that includes structural elements, wheels, axles, gears, motors, sensors and a programmable brick with rechargeable battery. Programming is accomplished through an intuitive graphical user interface.

The annually changing GEAR challenge is designed around a fictive story that motivates the need for autonomous robots, e.g., a robot operating at Antarctica or a nano-robot performing surgery. Participants visit the TTU campus three times during the challenge: first for kickoff, when they learn about the new challenge and receive their game pieces and rules. About five weeks into the competition, students visit the campus again for a trial competition. Finally, they return for game day and compete for various awards.

Since 2006, the competition has grown from a trial run held with Harwell Elementary School to a competition with about 200 participating teams with more than 600 students, over 35 elementary and middle schools from all over the South Plains. GEAR is successful in attracting a high percentage of females and minorities.

While the GEAR competition itself is a community service project, it also serves as a service learning project for an Introduction to Engineering course (ENGR 1315) that I annually teach in the spring. Students enrolled in my officially dedicated service learning section serve as mentors for the local teams participating in gear. Through this involvement of engineering undergraduate students as mentors, participants are exposed at an early age to the engineering discipline. This is important in a low-income area that does not offer many engineering jobs and where participants typically do not have any engineers as role models in their families. Through their service learning project, the engineering students experience the whole engineering design circle in a small scale. They learn to design and program the LEGO robots in class, and they use the robots for data collection, statistical analysis and calculus applications. During their mentoring experience, they oversee the engineering design process of the participants and improve important 21st century skills, such as communication skills, time management, professionalism, teamwork and leadership, which are hard to teach in a classroom setting.

Other service projects related to LEGO robotics include robotics field trips to TTU during which students gain hands-on experience in designing and programming these robots, showcases at the First Friday Arts Trail, and serving as judge for other robotics competitions.

To excite high school students about engineering, show engineering applications, and promote essential skills and coursework important to this field, I have been co-organizing the 2013 Halliburton Explore Engineering Field Tri, to which we invited straight-A ninth-grade students at the end of the academic year to visit the TTU campus and the Whitacre College of Engineering as a reward for academic excellence during their freshman year in high school.

Another topic dear to my heart is international experiences of students. From 2010 to 2013 I served as the TTU Fulbright faculty adviser and worked with all TTU students who want to study or research abroad for a year through this prestigious international exchange program. I have also assisted the Whitacre College of Engineering to find new partner universities in Germany and expand its study abroad offerings.

I am also a faculty adviser of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), a professional student organization within the Whitacre College of Engineering. Through my experience, I have been able to assist them in achieving their goals.

How do you feel your research impacts the globe?

Most of my STEM research is performed in West Texas. It is based on the geographical situation of Lubbock, which is surrounded by scattered small communities, a mostly agricultural economy and a high percentage of K-12 students of low socioeconomic standing. However, promoting education, particularly in the STEM fields, and providing female role models in engineering are important topics worldwide. I see my research as affecting the next generation of scientists and engineers, and while the ones who were exposed to the programs I am involved in are from West Texas, their work placement will most likely be across the globe. The first students who participated in GEAR robotics have recently graduated from high school, and while I have not tracked their careers, anecdotal evidence shows that many of them continued to participate in engineering courses and challenges in high school and in some cases pursued engineering careers.

At the recent Engagement Scholarship Conference here in Lubbock, I met a participant from South Africa who is running a similar LEGO robotics program as I do here. We had long discussions and exchanges of ideas and were surprised about the similarities of the programs developed and offered independently at such different locations.

What are you currently working on?

I am currently working on developing a LEGO robotics online professional development for teachers and after-school robotics coaches. In this effort I intend to expand opportunities to teachers/after-school coaches in small communities. While children approach LEGO robotics kits as toys, adults/teachers often request training before they feel confident to lead such an activity. Most professional training is currently offered face to face and requires travel and several days away from home. The course I envision offers weekly videos and challenges that robotics coaches/teachers can watch and solve together with their students at home. In the course we'll also tie engineering, physics and math applications, such that participants make the connection between robotics and STEM careers and problem statements. The material developed will also be used in my Introduction to Engineering course, such that students can prepare for class outside the classroom, and in-class time can be spent on hands-on assignments. I collaborate with a teacher from Guthrie Virtual School and the TTU T-STEM Center on this project.

Where do you find your inspiration?

A key inspiration comes from interacting with students in grades K-8 during the GEAR LEGO robotics competition. Seeing the excitement among these students, how they improve their critical thinking, problem solving, communication and teamwork skills, and how much they enjoy the events, motivates me to offer the competition year after year and to find ways to improve its quality by paying attention to details.

The second group of students are the engineering students who enroll in the service learning class. When I explain the service learning project to them at the beginning of the semester, they generally look surprised and do not really believe in its value. However, by the end of the eight weeks of mentoring, the large majority has highly enjoyed it and realized how much their time management, leadership, communication and engineering design skills have improved throughout it.

Lastly, performing research in STEM education has provided me with ample opportunities to collaborate with colleagues from outside of engineering. Through their different backgrounds and perspectives, new research questions arise, resulting in new projects and proposals. Over the years, I have been involved in the TTU Service Learning Program, first as a fellow, later on as a mentor, and through this program learned not only about other initiatives and approaches from colleagues on campus, but also about research in community engagement and engaged scholarship. The interdisciplinary and collaborative aspects of STEM education really inspire me to continue in this field. In addition, the results directly affect the community.

What advice do you have for new faculty members about balancing the components of Integrated Scholarship—teaching, research and service—in their careers?

Integrated Scholarship enabled me to combine teaching, research and service into a larger project, where each activity geared toward one component provides benefits and synergistic effects for the other two. Like performing research in a new field, it takes a few years before all components fall together to create a larger picture. My advice to new faculty members would be to build a strong research program, teach classes that are informed by their research, and prepare students to contribute to this field through undergraduate or graduate research after passing the class. As a next step, I suggest to see how teaching and research could be enriched through service projects. The seminars held at the TLPDC and the activities of CALUE have been sources of enrichment for me and provided me with new ideas for research projects or how to improve my teaching. With respect to service, if it is not stand-alone, but tied into a new faculty member's other interests, it is not just the most rewarding but also opens up the most opportunities to inform research and teaching.

Scholar Background

I got into the field of electrical engineering right after graduating from high school, where I particularly enjoyed math and physics classes. After attending information sessions about electrical engineering at a local university, consulting students who had recently enrolled in an engineering program and talking to professors in the field, I decided to enroll in a master's program in electrical engineering at Hamburg University of Technology. As a sophomore I selected signal processing and digital communications systems as my concentration area within electrical engineering. After graduating with a Master of Science in electrical engineering (Dipl.-Ing.) in 1993, I continued at the same university as a research scientist and received my doctoral degree in electrical engineering in 1997. During my doctoral studies and until about 2005, my major research focus was in the area of multirate signal processing, with applications to audio and image processing as well as multicarrier communications systems. While I was always dedicated to classroom teaching, my research interest in engineering education was sparked in 2005 through a request for proposals by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board as part of the Texas Workforce Development Program.

M.S., Electrical Engineering, Hamburg University of Technology, Germany (1993);
Ph.D., Electrical Engineering, Hamburg University of Technology, Germany (1997)


Back to 2014 Texas Tech Integrated Scholars

Office of the Provost