New Engineering, Technology and Design Programs Enthrall Elementary Students

By Katie Koerten

Note: This is an excerpt from an Earth Matters column that was published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, online on Friday, February 9, 2018.

Hitchcock Center educators teach engineering and design with get-out-of-your-seat-and-try methods engaging children in experimental design, trial and error, teamwork, role-play, and refining of design ideas. How do we teach this?

Rube Goldberg Machines

Students at the Swift River Elementary School in Belchertown build Rube Goldberg machines and learn about engineering in the process. KATIE KOERTEN

You’ve probably seen Rube Goldberg machines in popular culture, be it in Wallace and Gromit movies, “Peewee’s Playhouse,” or perhaps the OK Go music video for the song “This Too Shall Pass.” Rube Goldberg machines are complicated contraptions with many moving parts that perform one simple task, such as zipping a zipper or flipping a light switch. They require an input of energy in the beginning, such as pushing a marble down a ramp, or knocking down the first domino in a chain of dominoes, and that sets off a chain reaction of events that ultimately leads to the completion of the simple task at the end.

Hitchcock Educator Katie Koerten, recently taught a series of classroom programs on Rube Goldberg Machines in the Ware and Belchertown elementary schools. Katie presents a task to her students, such as ringing a bell or watering a plant. Then she gives them baskets of objects found around the Hitchcock Center — like marbles, paper tubes and string — gives them a time limit, and they get to work. Students are bursting with ideas. They run into frustration and dead ends, and we encourage them to tweak and try again, or think of a new plan. They take pride in their work, jumping and clapping when they’re successful. The flurry of excited thinking, designing, testing, redesigning and re-testing strikes a deep chord for her. “Kids were made for these kinds of challenges. It’s rare to see a single child left out of the commotion; everyone is engaged, building, and helping,” says Katie.

Learning from Nature
The Hitchcock Center, with past funding support from the Clowes Fund, Francis R. Dewing Foundation and Webster Foundation, developed new Learning from Nature curriculum that is now being implemented in schools throughout the Pioneer Valley. One of the most popular of these programs is the rainwater catchment design challenge. The students are asked, “How can we build a roof for a building that can capture, collect and filter rainwater for the building’s needs?” The challenge is to build a prototype made of a variety of materials such as poster board, aluminum foil, popsicle sticks and tape. In a designated amount of time, students must create a roof that collects as much water as possible. The Hitchcock Center’s design team faced this same question when designing its new 9,000 square foot environmental learning center. The building now serves as an active teaching tool and demonstration site where students can visit and learn about ecological design and biomimicry.

Working in groups, students tackle their problem first by talking it out. It’s amazing to see the teams launch into excited discussion; the room erupts in a frenzy of ideas. Students are hungry for the chance to be creative and begin building. They survey available materials and start making their choices. Upper-elementary students are told they have a certain amount of money to spend on materials, and therefore are working within the constraints of limited time, money and materials. We explain that real-world scientists and engineers are often faced with similar limitations. As students build, they run into problems: leaks, collapses, lack of money. They have to reassess, redesign and rebuild. When time is up, the teams demonstrate their designs for their classmates. The class watches as the instructor pours water on the prototype roofs, and students reflect on their work and offer critiques to their neighbors.

And we often get asked, “What’s the connection to the environment?” The connection might not seem obvious, but it’s important. We know that to solve the problems facing our planet today, bold new thinking is required. New technologies, and new inventions are needed to wean our society off fossil fuels and mitigate the effects of climate change. We want our students to think of themselves as problem solvers — inventors, designers, makers — from a young age. We want them to develop resilience and creativity, and the boldness to share it. Our engineering curriculum is equal parts social-emotional and physical science curriculum. Whether they are in the form of playful Rube Goldberg machines or modeled on our real-life “living building,” we hope these opportunities for engineering in the classroom empower students to think creatively and get practice sharing and trying out their ideas. Chances are, one day soon planet Earth will need them.

Learn more about the variety of Hitchcock school programsclassroom programs, and field trips.

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