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.
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