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.
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