Busy Beavers – Engineering Design Challenge

By Patrick O’Roark

beaver dam-4How can a nature center educate about engineering? With a little help from a friend, and a little inspiration from one of nature’s most amazing engineers, the beaver.

During the second week of November2015, I joined three other Hitchcock educators and our executive director in traveling up to Waterville Valley, New Hampshire, for the annual conference of the New England Environmental Education Alliance (NEEEA). The theme of the 2015 conference was the Climate of Change, meant to reflect both the pressing issue of our changing climate and how we educate about it, and the changing field of environmental education.

One of the big changes we had been anticipating here in Massachusetts was the adoption of the 2016 Science and Technology/Engineering (STE) Standards (officially adopted by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on January 26,2016). Teachers are going to be looking for help adapting their lessons to achieve the new standards, including a greater emphasis on engineering. Which brings me back to my question: how can a nature center educate about engineering?

The friend I mentioned was Jenica McEvoy, School Project Leader from the One World Conservation Center in Bennington, VT. It was at her workshop at NEEEA that I got to experience her “Busy Beavers: Engineering Design Challenge” for 4th to 6th graders, newly developed to support the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) upon which the new Massachusetts STE Standards were being based. Ms. McEvoy not only walked us through the two-hour lesson, but also provided us with the lesson plan materials that will allow us to deliver the program ourselves.

The “Busy Beavers” lesson seamlessly blends the appeal of wildlife with a messy, tactile puzzle that is as fun as any game, while also taking students through the design-test-redesign cycle of engineering. During the first hour of the program, students learn about beaver adaptations, food chains, and population ecology with beaver bio-facts, some ecosystem roleplaying, and a slideshow that showcases how beavers create their dams and why. In the second hour, the students are split into teams and each team is presented with the same challenge: “You need a place to ice skate in the winter, and the only way you can do that is to dam a stream and create a pond. How can you effectively dam this stream?”

beaver damThe model standing in for the stream is a window planter box, and instead of the sticks and mud favored by beavers, the students are given a list of materials ranging from clay to popsicle sticks. Each material has a cost, and the students have to agree on a design that is within budget. Each team member has a role, such as Construction Engineer or Budget Officer, with unique responsibilities that serve to empower and engage all members of the team.

All this team work leads up to the big moment – when water is poured into one side of the window planter box, will the team’s dam keep it from flowing to the other side? After the test it’s back to brainstorming as the students design a second dam within budget that improves upon the first.

Define the problem; plan solutions; make a model; test the model; reflect and redesign. Those are the basic steps of the engineering design process. Having experienced the “Busy Beavers” lesson first hand, I know just how fun the engineering design process can be. Hitchcock educator Colleen Kelley has already used the lesson in a professional development program for teachers. I previewed the lesson for our board members (who learned about ecology while pretending to be moose, beavers and forests).

With a little help from their friends at the Hitchcock Center, teachers of the Pioneer Valley will soon be showing their students just how fun the engineering process can be.

Check our classroom program offerings to get this new engineering program into your school right away!

Patrick O’Roark is an Environmental Educator at the Hitchcock Center. He leads school field trips, residencies, homeschool programs, and has served as a summer camp counselor for several summers. Patrick is also the live animal caretaker for the teaching animals at the Center.

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