Thursday, October 6, 2011

STEM Service Learning: Homeschoolers Gain Collaborative Skills

For seven years now I've taught at a homeschool co-op while my own kids attend public school, and I attended parochial school for 12 years, so I feel like I've gotten a front-row seat to the best of all worlds. I've heard endless debates about which mode of education is best, with lots of stereotypes and suspicion thrown around. My take? There are excellent aspects to each, and each has its own drawbacks. I'd rather skip the esoteric arguments and move right to being part of a solution. If that sounds OK to you, keep reading. If not, go on and post on a debate website somewhere.

My passion is STEM (science technology engineering and math) education. Key elements of STEM ed include group collaborative skills, innovation, and stem concepts through project-based learning. What better place for homeschoolers, who are traditionally more independent learners, to gain experience than at a co-op with other same-aged students?

Last year my 9th and 10th grade Introduction to Engineering students filtered water, built tiny cantilevers, played with polymers and crafted a Wright Flyer out of recyclables. This year many of those same students are in Engineering 2 and we're starting a new effort. It's called service learning, and it's been on my brain ever since I stumbled upon the National Service Learning Partnership's website .

We're embarking on a 20-24 week project (we're 3 weeks in now) called Capstone. In the Capstone projects, teams of three, four or five students will practice service learning and the design cycle. Service learning is a model where educational concepts and teamwork are put to use in projects for the good of the local community. Service learning can happen in any subject - an example would be creating "reading buddies" where older students practice reading skills by working with younger kids.

In the STEM (science/technology/engineering/math) world service learning can happen by student teams designing computer models for churches, inventing products for animal shelters to make their work easier, creating computer applications to help senior citizens, and many other possibilities. Some of these very ideas were proposed last week by student groups.

Some service learning models are student-led, and this is what I'm striving for. Our four class group leaders volunteered for the leads and are doing an admirable job so far. After assembling teams and brainstorming ideas, teams presented their select ideas for feedback. Criteria for Capstone Project approval include meeting an actual need, having a community partner, teacher approval, and of a scope and level of effort to fit well inside a 20-24 week process.

If you are in the Charlottesville, Virginia area, work with a non-profit or community group that has a project, and are willing to partner with some awesome high-school engineering students, drop me a line! Also, if you are interested in supporting our efforts with a donation, that would be much appreciated and would help offset materials costs.

I'll post updates throughout the year on what we cook up.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Wright Stuff

Image credit: Jm@n Google 3-D warehouse 2011

What can you do with 200 square feet of corrugated cardboard, 100 feet of cardboard rollers, yards of yarn and Makedo connectors? If you add in over 20 students and 5 hours in the hot sun, you get a half-scale model of the Wright Flyer.

Why? Why would we do such a thing? I'm slightly crazy and the awesome students were actually really happy to do it. We finished up our Intro to Engineering course for the year with a four-week unit on the STEM concepts of recycling - where do plastic bottles, diapers, cardboard and glass come from, and where do they go when we throw them away. To "tangify" the lessons (I'm totally coining that word, meaning to make tangible) we did mini-challenges with Makedo and then brainstormed a LARGE group build using only recyclable materials.

In order to practice the design cycle, smaller student teams imagined projects and pitched them to everyone. Students voted and the winning project was to model the Wright Brothers' first flying machine, the 1903 Wright Flyer.
Working off of a Google SketchUp model of the Flyer (credit: J-m@n) from the 3-D warehouse, we shrunk it to half size and printed multiple views with dimensions. Students brought boxes, tubes, plastic bags and old yard, lots of it.

Although our ultimate goal of constructing such a solid Flyer that we could actually launch it failed, we did manage to put together over 75% of the very complicated airplane. I think each of us knows a ton more about Orville and Wilbur's ingenious design and how to work together on a project. We ran into the same issues that every project has: time overruns, material shortages, weather factors - but there's nothing better than practice to learn how to deal with these in a productive manner and keep progressing to a goal. Excellent work, students - you really did something special.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Use Less by Makedo-ing More, Part 2

Student-made Makedo windmill using plastic cups, styrofoam and connectors - video below

We're continuing to study STEM recycling concepts using Makedo as an activity focus. Last week we studied the life cycle of cardboard and made Makedo creations with reusables, this week we covered glass and made more Makedo-dles.

Teaching this class is like playing one big game of Balderdash. If I had to guess what words like "cullet" and "vitrification" meant I would have guessed, in order, a fish and a wine process. No points for me - want to take a try yourself, just pause before reading on...

Glass is one example of an amorphous solid, which is just a fancypants way of saying it doesn't have structure like a crystal. Glass' primary raw material is sand, or silica (SiO2) which is heated and combined with additives to make different types of glass. (I can't help sharing that when lighting strikes sand the intense heat instantaneously forms lightning glass, or fulgurite - it's like petrified lightning!)

Just like water, when glass turns from a solid into a liquid through heat it's called melting. But glass gets its own awesome word, "vitrification", for the change from liquid back to solid glass. Really, at room temperature glass is as frozen as we would be at -50 Celsius. Next time you look through a pane of glass or at a bottle, see a frozen completely reusable liquid!

Glass can withstand this change back and forth from liquid to solid an unending amount of times, which is why it's so good to recycle. So "cullet" is not a bottom-feeding fish, it's crushed glass that's ready to recycle by adding more raw materials and reheating.

My students' earth-friendly activity was to use Makedo to design an object with recyclable parts that moved on their own in the wind. We ran out of time for all groups to complete a working model, but there was one notable success:

excellent work, Zach and teammates!

If you want to learn more, check out the following links:

Video for how glass is recycled

Listing of everything that is recyclable in the city of Charlottesville, VA

Household hazardous waste disposal guide locally

Corning Museum of Art's website with tons of fun pictures and explanations:


Friday, May 6, 2011

Failure does hurt. It just isn't the end.

Hello students and blog readers - I'm going to write something here, and it's tough but I especially want my students to know that I really mean what I say. Blog readers, you can listen in on the conversation but this is primarily written to my students. I tell them all the time that failure can be the best thing because you can learn so much. I cheer when they put tons of effort into a model that doesn't work, since then they pick up and try again. I remember things the most when they have thwarted me over and over before I get it.

Students, our team was just turned down for the next step in the Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams grant cycle. We spent dozens of hours of creative and thoughtful work to document our potential invention and plan, and I have the highest respect for the teams ultimately chosen by MIT. Students, I am so proud of you, you have come so far in just one year. I'm sure we'll still try to prototype our invention through other funding or grants.

This is the real world - yes, I'm fantastically disappointed but also not crushed - if I add up all the times I "succeed" versus "fail" I'm sure the fails would far outpace the wins. I writing this so you know that how we handle the losses is so key, so clutch - and when it comes down to it even though I'm your teacher I'm still learning, just like you.

Here's to you - great work, and I'm looking forward to next year's application.

Friday, April 29, 2011

InvenTeams or Bust

Our group has an application in for a $10,000 Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams grant and we'll find out May 6 if we win! We submitted our multi multi part proposal April 22nd for this extremely cool program run through a partnership between the Lemelson Foundation and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Too excited to wait. Even if we don't get it it's been an awesome learning experience and a chance to give students a leadership and brainstorming role - we had to document a potential invention - and we'll try again next year! I'll keep everyone posted!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Use Less by Makedo-ing More

Photo credit retrieved 4/27/11, © Makedo and Paul Justin

We're now starting a multi-part unit on green engineering and STEM concepts that is similar to the Sugru challenge (see posts from Febr.). We've got eco-things to learn and a large-scale project to design, all tied into the science and technology surrounding the environment. Now, before your eyes begin to glaze over at the thought of an environmental lecture and guilt-trip into recycling, give me just a minute. I am just like anyone out there. I recycle when it's convenient, try to reuse things, watch what I throw down the drain but definitely could do a better job of being eco-friendly.

What I find over and over again with my students, though, is that inspiring them to take hold of concepts through fun activities is much more effective than trying to grind subject matter into them. I'm taking a cue from them right now as I've recently been very moved to think differently about the materials I use and then discard. Learning doesn't always have to taste like fish oil. Sometimes it can taste like popcorn.

Our new partner in this effort is the awesome Australian company Makedo. Makedo describes themselves as "inspiring social change through playful creativity". They make a set of universal connectors and hinges that can transform a pile of paper into a toy, bird or a car (my own kids love their gallery of creations). Makedo is especially fond of cool designs and collaboration. We've got enough of their universal connectors and tools for all thirty engineering students and any others who are interested in making something BIG and FUN out of materials that would otherwise have been thrown away.

Makedo and STEM concepts came together in yesterday's lesson:

Students learned facts about the size and scale of human trash production, like how humans generate more than four pounds per person per day. We also ran through the complete life cycle of cardboard: beginning with fast-growing pine trees trunks, wood pulp is shredded, "digested" by sodium hydroxide to break up wood fibers and then pressed, rolled and dried into sheets or shapes. Once used, cardboard can be stuck back into digesters with fresh wood pulp and reused (as long as it doesn't have plastic coating on it). We named and discussed local recyclers like Van der Linde that offer single-stream recycling.

Finally, they practiced the design cycle using Makedo connectors and reusable materials from my home, which were cardboard, plastic bottles, caps and grocery paper bags. Their goal was to make a pet or creature in only 15 minutes using only Makedo and the recyclables.

If you want to explore more, see these links:

Common recycling facts

How corrugated cardboard is made

Recycling cardboard

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Biomedical Engineering: more than just Frankenfruit

How can a debate of the relative strengths between Chewbacca and Yoda help students learn?

Ask David Chen, faculty member at the University of Virginia Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME). David was our third guest speaker for the year and brought stories, descriptions of current research, and some fun to our class. He heads UVa's partnership with the Coulter Foundation to support translational research (making scientific discoveries and bringing them into real-world situations). As I've mentioned before, lack of knowledge of current careers and research in engineering is often a barrier to choosing to study engineering. In his engaging way, David helped take down a few more barriers for this group of students.

David started off by dividing class into two teams. Each team had to pick and defend a superhero with uncommon strength, skill or special powers. One team picked Yoda, the other, a hundred Chewbaccas. Who would win if they fought? Why? What are some traits that are biologically different? Could you combine genes to make a Yobacca, or Chewyoda? Would it be right to do so? After the laughter died down from picturing Yoda using the force on a giant circle of Wookies (I know they're on the same side, silly) David drew parallels between the discussion and modern biomedical engineering.

He described a field that bridges medicine, biology, materials science and engineering, a field where you quite possibly could take desirable properties of one element and combine them with another.

A BME might listen to a surgeon describing a need for a surgical tool. A BME could understand the problem, then apply his or her knowledge of biology and design to create and test a new medical technology.

BME's also grow skin cells and tissue for grafts, study ways to improve prosthetics, or generate strains of crops that are drought resistant or have special properties (example: frankenfruit).

Biomedical engineering is filled with ethical debates on stem cell use, genetically modified foods and cloning. David helpfully told us that the embryonic stem cell debate is lessening because there are alternate, ethically preferable sources of stem cells coming into use from adults or umbilical cord blood.

Bio-medical engineering is an excellent example of a cross-disciplinary career that is changing and developing quickly due to its young age. Thanks again to David Chen.

Check out these links for further exploration.

Homepage of the University of Virginia Biomedical Engineering Department. There are easy to find tabs for people, research, news, and contact information. Look at what they are studying in tissues, imaging or cardiovascular engineering.

Frequently Asked Questions about biomedical engineering from the Biomedical Engineering Society. This page has a nice summary of specialty areas within Biomedical Engineering including bioinstrumentation, biomaterials, biomechanics, rehabilitation engineering, medical imaging and systems physiology.

If the conversations about ethics in biomedical engineering interested you, you might want to browse the National Society of Professional Engineer's Code of Ethics. Just as doctors must "first, do no harm", professional engineers must "hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Keep it Simple

I'm thankful for lots of things in this world. Some of those things are General Tso's chicken, hugs from my kids, and simple machines.

Simple machines doesn't mean machines that don't know much. It means tools that provide mechanical advantage, or increase the amount of work someone is able to do. The six simple machines are the pulley, wheel and axle, lever, wedge, screw and inclined plane.

Any of these six can be combined to make more complicated machines, like.... marshmallow launchers.

I have to admit that as a teacher my lesson plans often include elements to make me laugh, but this time I think it was the students who got the laugh.

This week myself, two bags of large marshmallows and twenty-some students covered the basics of simple machines and used at least one simple machine to make three launchers: high-flying, far-flying, and precise flying to a target.

It was highly amusing to see four teams of students working furiously with styrofoam cups, lego blocks, rubber bands, foam plates, bamboo skewers, a yardstick, paper and tape. Launchers went on a table and marshmallows went in the launcher so that no part of a student touched the mini-astronaut before it flew.

There were a number of lever-type launchers with fulcrums, some "wheel and axle" devices with the skewer poked through a plate and a notable, alarming bow and arrow. To be fair, the only simple machine really in the bow and arrow was a foam plate wheel on the bottom, but they did cover themselves. The arrow group stuck a marshmallow on a skewer, ran the skewer through a hole in the yardstick, used rubber bands for tension, and swish - I've never seen a marshmallow move so fast.

I have to disclaim here that my husband was rightfully upset with me since I had as the target for precise launchers my face, and more specifically my mouth. In my defense I was picturing soft arcs of delicious marshmallows, not speedy dangerous marshmallows, but still - don't shoot sharp things at anyone's face, not even if the sharp things are tipped with marshmallows.

The goals of this exercise were to teach a STEM concept (simple machines), foster creativity, practice the design cycle AGAIN, and have students own these ideas by doing and making. I'd say it went well. My only change would be to have someone else hold the bag of marshmallows. I think I ate about twenty of them.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Tsunamis, Engineering and Compassion

Scale model tsunami zone

I felt conflicted over this week's lesson on engineering structures for tsunami survival using a scale model. I didn't want students to laugh over or trivialize the enormous trauma our brothers and sisters in Japan are undergoing. I did want to give them a better sense of a giant wave's size, scope and destructive power while teaching about tsunamis being a natural (unpreventable) disaster. Not a single person should think that anyone in Japan bears fault for the earthquake or tsunami. I want to help in some way by contacting a Japanese homeschooling group similar to ours here to find out what we can do. I'll update everyone as that effort comes together.

The facts:
  • Tsunamis travel faster than the beach waves we bob in. Most beach waves are created by wind traveling over the ocean for long distances. Their speed must be less than the speed of the wind. Tsunamis are created by earth movement in the deep sea and are not limited by wind. They can travel up to 500 mph.
  • Tsunamis are much higher than beach waves. Because of how shorelines are shaped, a two-foot shift in deep seabed can translate into a thirty foot (or higher) breaking tsunami wave at the coast.
  • Engineers can improve building tsunami survival odds by materials design and changing building structure and geometry. Stronger materials are better but more expensive. Minimizing exposed surface area helps too.
Students had three materials: paper towels, manila-type paper, and paper with toothpicks. Their challenge was to create model houses on a scale of 1 inch:10 feet quickly out of each material and position them on a "beach": a long, wide container half-filled with water and with sand on one end for a mini-coastline. Thanks to TeachEngineering for the plan.

Armed with six model houses (two from each material) the students placed their houses on the beach. We generated a scale-model thirty foot wave (video below shows how). Some houses were placed on sand 15 to 20 feet above sea level and were inundated. Toothpicks elevated other structures (some to ludicrous heights) and those fared better. Students observed how housing material and shape related to damage. They thought about the tradeoffs between material strength and cost, and between safe height and a height that occupants could actually reach!


Students did a wonderful job. They collaborated, practiced the design cycle (they were able to rework the buildings and have a second trial) and learned some STEM concepts. I'd say they also gained a better appreciation of the challenges engineers face due to tsunamis.

Additional resources: here's some recent tsunami survival design from a collaboration beteween Harvard and MIT: the Tsunami Design Initiative and SENSEable City.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Help Others with Your Skills

"I bought my first slide rule for $30 in 1956, which would be about $200 in today's dollars."

The look on the students' faces was priceless. I'm not sure how many had even heard of a slide rule, much less held one, as the wooden and decidedly un-electronic device was passed around. Dr. Kenneth Brewer began his guest lecture to our engineering class with a history of the technology that he used as a student, then as a doctoral candidate, then as a professor of engineering. When he asked how many in the class had calculators, there was only a smattering, since most of them use the calculator through some other device like a phone or ipod!

Our second guest engineering speaker of the year, Dr. Brewer taught Civil Engineering at Iowa State for over 30 years and is now retired. Students (and I) learned that in 1970 a calculator cost him $400! And that was from a discount store!

There are several obstacles to students choosing and sticking with engineering as a major. Yes, there's the math and science background, but there are a couple of other sneaky ones. It turns out that people study such things as student motivators, and have learned that 1) negative stereotypes of engineers and a 2) lack of knowledge of what engineers do are both harmful to engineering enrollment. Students need to hear, see, and wrap their brains around lots of positive role models and creative careers. Dr. Brewer was a fantastic example.

Aside from the slide rule, the coolest things he shared were stories and pictures from volunteer work he does with Engineering Ministries International, or EMI. EMI is a faith-based non-profit that sends teams of architects, designers and engineers to areas where they can help families and children through construction projects. We saw slides of a team next to a tank in Afghanistan and on a bus in India. How amazing for students to see that something they learn now can help someone across the world build a bridge, a school or a place of worship!

Dr. Brewer kept using words like collaborate, creative, listening and constraints. A constraint in design is something that is a boundary, something that you must keep in mind when doing your work, a line not to cross. His EMI trips ran into all kinds of constraints: environmental (work in India at night with a flashlight because it's 120◦F during the day) geological (sandy site in Jordan mean extra big concrete "feet" for support) and cultural (moving from province to province in Afghanistan required armed guides).

Even he "learned with a lone wolf mentality, the game has changed and it's a team now". Thanks to him for adapting and sharing his work with us.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Learn for Free

Geometry student's graphic repeat cell

This is an exciting time for education. Digital media and connectivity make it more possible than ever to learn what you want, when you want, applying it as creatively as possible. Here's a list of free resources that I've come across that can help both students and, well, I was going to say out-of-schoolers - but we really all should be continually learning at this point.
Free SAT, GRE and GMAT standardized test plans and problems. Has a nifty feature that can print you out an eight week study plan. Totally costless, has a thousand vocab words.

Classes from MIT
I spent one summer in high school studying at MIT and fell in love with it. Even though I went to University of Virginia, it's been in my heart ever since. MIT now offers many of its classes online FREE, calling it Open Courseware. Chemistry, economics, urban planning, engineering, it's all there. Some courses have notes only, a few have multimedia.

Classes from Everywhere
Organized by language, this site lists universities that offer Open Courseware similar to MIT's program. Notre Dame, Michigan, even Oxford's Mathematical Institute let you learn, self-paced, without cost.

Teach Engineering
Standards-based engineering lessons and activities, searchable and sortable by age and discipline. Great for encouraging students to think and collaborate, with lists of materials needed and how long activities should take.

The Art of Problem Solving's free, challenging and slightly addictive math tutorial. What I like about this site is that you sign up and are given a math problem to solve. If you get it right, the program bumps you up to harder problems. Get it wrong, and you'll work through more problems until you understand the basics. You score points and can compete, see your rankings, and if a whole class does it the teacher can view class stats. Many math disciplines treat subjects like silos, going deep into algebra or geometry but never mixing the two. An engineer might have an issue that requires algebra, geometry, logic and be open-ended; Alcumus comes up with problems that (in my opinion) more closely simulate the real world.
I've spent my share of time playing pointless but fun online games. This link gets you to more point-full games that integrate physics concepts, mechanical knowledge, and oh, by the way, are just as easy to fritter away time on. The only difference is that you'll be sharpening your mind.

Amazing lectures from TED
I've so enjoyed learning obscure, wonderful things from TED, a nonprofit that has as its goal sharing ideas. They invite speakers who are inspiring, strange and informative. In the last few days I've watched the world-champion whistler, learned about bioluminescence and saw a mathemagician.

That's probably enough for now. I've got tons more, if anyone wants particular help finding math vs. engineering vs. something else, let me know!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Designing Packaging

Test your packaging acumen - out of these solid shapes, given a volume of 12 ounces, which would use the least packaging?
Yesterday I gave the class a taste of packaging engineering. It made sense since we just finished a materials science unit with a focus on properties - the kind of stuff that wraps and protects the things we buy and use is vital!

Packaging engineers must be able to successfully integrate industrial or chemical engineering and work with a team of marketers, designers and financial types. Choosing the proper material, labeling it with the right colors, transporting it safely, while protecting the food or consumer goods inside is a complex task.

Take fast-food soda cups for instance. I'm a forgetful type, so when I've got that large drink of lemonade in my cupholder I'll often leave it there for, um, let's say a few days. The same cup that nicely brought lovely cold lemonade to my lips has, after 72 hours or so, begun leaking out of the bottom seam and depositing unlovely sticky lemon syrup in my cupholder. Why didn't the quick serve eatery make a better takeaway cup? Why not plastic instead of waxy paper?

Every paper packaging decision involves a trade-off. Fast-food joints could easily provide solid plastic take-out cups but the cost for plastic instead of waxy paper would be much higher. They could also design the cups with better paper to hold the liquid longer but that would take more money as well. The fact is, engineers and marketing teams have decided that for the given design goals of serving a beverage that (should be) finished and disposed of in a few hours a slightly waxy paper cup is just the right container. In some sense the fast-food cup is "designed to fail" at just the right time to save everyone money and reduce waste.

How about a half-gallon of orange juice? Now there's a product that won't usually be finished in a few hours, barring an attack of thirsty teenage boys. (Once I drank a quart of milk in one sitting but that was kind of gross.) The paper is thicker, more waxy, with a replaceable cap. It won't leak in a few days - but it won't last forever, either. It also has very cleverly designed features and colors to make you enjoy drinking it and think that it's fresh, usually pictures of trees and oranges and straws on the outside. You could have a great sturdy container of OJ but with drawings of candy on the outside and it wouldn't sell because moms would think it was full of sugar, even if it wasn't.

Now, which shape did you guess would use the least packaging? It's the sphere.

Students this last week listened to a lecture on surface area and volume, void space and efficient shapes. Even though the sphere has the best surface area to volume ratio (the least packaging to hold the most volume) we don't see spheres of juice on the shelves! Why? Not an engineering constraint, but a consumer use one - people don't want their soda to roll away! Also, spheres take up more room when stacked in a box than rectangular prisms do.

After the lecture, students worked in teams of about five with pieces of paper to design a paper cup that could hold the most volume of water for about a minute. With only one piece of paper at a time, the surface area was set but the volume could vary - and did! Designs that were rounded in shape seemed to work best, although plain paper without any coating would leak water within a matter of minutes. Still, if someone could engineering a paper cup that could be made by folding only, no glue or cutting needed, while still serving consumer needs, there would be much less waste and tons of money saved on manufacturing.

For more study check out these sites showcasing excellent design in packaging:

The Dieline

I.D. Magazine Annual Design Review

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Sugru Designs by Students

We've just finished two classes' worth of sugru solutions. I am so proud of my students, most of whom are around 15 years old, for creatively practicing the design cycle and giving excellent presentations. Several of them have been so kind as to allow me to post pictures of their work. There were modifications, repairs, even suggested inventions.

Overall, I think using an actual substance to help students understand materials science, polymers, and design was a good way for them to own the knowledge.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Woohoo! The Sugru is here!

It arrived just in time to hand out to eager students.


Saturday, February 5, 2011

On Failure

I had someone this week ask me what to do if his or her engineering project "failed". Would he or she still have to present to the class?

I've never been good with failure. Something about coming from a driven family, my mother being a second generation immigrant and my father being the youngest of five where his dad was a longshoreman. We scrapped and scraped in many ways because we had to.

I even remember a time in my life when it felt like failure was an impossibility, when everything I did seemed to turn to gold. Why think about failing when it was not a reality?

The truth of it is, during that golden period I was the most despondent I've ever been. Accomplishment, academic and athletic success, and I was still hunted inside. I remember feeling embittered that honors could not make me happy inside or bring together my broken family.

Now, married thirteen years with four kids, I've had plenty of opportunities to fail. Plan a notable family activity, surely one for the scrapbooks, and end up mad with frustration instead. Promise myself I won't say that extra mean thing on the tip of my tongue. Too late. Love someone so hard that they'll stay on the straight and narrow. Nope.

It all extends to this class in a way. I feel like my growth as a person shows up in what I say and affects my students. I've had a lot of lumps and honestly get uncommonly excited about failure. It's that failure is instructive and presses the experience deep into our minds. My acceptance of "messing up" allows me more grace with others.

Failure or not, everyone will present. It's better that way, more honest and revealing, and those who have their project go awry will probably getting something juicier from the experience than those who got it on the first try.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Just getting past the dead of winter and we're beginning an awesome new project. So last fall as I ran around the internet bookmarking resources I came across Sugru by way of a contest on I stopped moving for two hours while reading about this new synthetic polymer designed by an Irishwoman named Jane. Right out of the pack, before it sets or "cures", Sugru is moldable and plastic-y like play-doh. After 30 minutes it begins to cure and after 24 hours it is a flexible, heat- and cold-resistant, form-keeping waterproof silicone substance. Sugru can adhere things if pressed together before curing, making it handy for repairing or modifying anything, really. Seeing as how my main objectives for Intro to Engineering include thinking/learning like an engineer AND practicing the design cycle I was hooked on the thought of getting some Sugru, teaching a unit on materials science engineering around it, and letting them engineer their own solutions (the folks overseas call these fix-its "hacks").

Here's how it's gone so far:

In early January I introduced the topic of materials science with some goofy commentary on how you wouldn't want a concrete sweater or a bridge made out of marshmallows. How materials react under stress and temperature is a key concern for an engineer. We covered stress, strain and their correct units and looked at how a stress vs. strain graph might give us helpful data. After an overview of elastic, plastic and brittle characteristics, the students used cans of various weights to squash marshmallows, clay and lego towers. They measured the amount of deformation, calculated and plotted points for their stress-strain curves, and made estimates as to which material belonged in which category.
(Marshmallows were a tricky substance since I had mini ones and needed to smash them together to make a marsh-ball. I didn't use any water to goo it because that would have changed the elastic properties.)

The following week we covered what polymers are and named common polymers such as rubber, PVC, stryofoam, teflon and silicone. Thanks to the Polymer Science Learning Center for many helpful resources and links for students to explore. I also introduced Sugru and briefly discussed it's properties when uncured and cured.

Rewind here: after falling in love with Sugru, I sent Jane an email with possibly the worst sales pitch of all time. "Send us some Sugru for our class or I will be forced to buy some!" I did buy some and played with it around the house, fixing and patching things, and Jane graciously agreed to send us some for this unit.

Students have brainstormed with classmates, peppered me with insightful and silly questions (Does it float? How old is Jane?) and are currently drawing a diagram of their proposed solution. This week I hand out the Sugru to students. After a week of making their hack and documenting the results each will present to the class.

I can't wait to see what they decide to do with it. I'm contemplating such hacks as safety-proofing a cabinet, modifying a game controller or attaching a lamp directly to a bedframe.

More posts to come.

Monday, January 10, 2011

So much for me blogging consistently all year!

I've now spent the last four months teaching thirty eager homeschoolers introductory principles of engineering. The students range in age with most landing on 14-15 years old. Why am I teaching homeschoolers? In Charlottesville, Virginia, there is a flourishing homeschool community that organizes itself nicely into co-operatives and smaller classes for specialized subjects that parents aren't as comfortable teaching on their own.

For five years I've been a Geometry and Physics instructor, pulling from my Engineering degree at the University of Virginia (thank you, professors). This course is really a work in progress since there's no way to cover all the amazing aspects of the field and this is the first year. I've got five units as guide:

1. Thinking and Learning Like an Engineer
2. Communicating and Collaborating Like an Engineer
3. Knowing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and the Design Cycle Like an Engineer
4. Ethical Dilemmas of Engineering
5. Engineering Careers

My husband Dave, who has a master's in teaching, helped me to create a class format that would achieve learning objectives in a fun and interactive way. I provide a brief lecture on a unit topic, followed by an activity illustrating the topic, ending with a class debrief. Students have as their primary aid a bound notebook for reflective journaling. Each week they record diagrams and drawings from class, thoughts, likes/dislikes, suggestions, and things that surprised them from the activity.

Students also complete a second journal entry on an internet resource that I provide that complements the topic.

As an example - for one of our first classes, I combined a STEM concept with a Collaboration concept for Cantilevered Bridges. The lecture time covered center-of-mass, cantilevers, common cantilevers in society and how a successful cantilever can be designed. For the activity, teams of 3-4 students had about thirty toothpicks and gobs of molding clay. The design goal was to make the longest possible cantilever in a set time. Once time was over, students compared their structures with other groups', then had another round to revise and improve. Finally, we recorded lengths and sketches and discussed what worked and what didn't.

A typical student journal from that class might comment on what he or she knew already vs. what was new, what was unexpected, what it was like to work with others, and what successful cantilever design might entail.

The resource link I sent to students as an application was an article about the Quebec Bridge Collapse over the St. Lawrence River. The Quebec Bridge in 1907 was the most ambitious cantilevered bridge project to date, and it failed catastrophically. Students read the link and make connections between the real-life bridge, our activity, group work, and ethics.

We've now had 15 classes in a similar format, with a focal point, interactive project, and then verbal and written reflection.

There are so many other tie-ins that I'd like to include - visits to engineering firms around town, connections to colleges, helping students get internships - I can't do it all, but I want to!
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