On Monday, clear trash bags covered the floor of Deanine Lilley’s classroom in Jack Jouett Middle School, and the voices of cheering students carried through the classroom’s closed door and into the hall.
The students, however, weren’t misbehaving; they were participating in a weeklong engineering project led by undergraduate students from the University of Virginia.
“We’re learning and we don’t even realize it sometimes, and that is the best kind of learning,” said eighth-grader Savannah Anderson.
“Any time you can get them doing hands-on work, you have a higher level of engagement, so in learning these concepts like Newton’s laws of motion, the transfer of potential and kinetic energy, there is more learning that goes on because they can actually see it and experience it,” she said.
The UVa students spent the past week introducing eighth grade physical science students to engineering and physics as part of a capstone project for their creativity and product development class at the university.
Greg Coffin, a fourth-year engineering student, said his classmates could have chosen to conduct their own research, but they wanted to encourage middle school students to pursue math and science in their future studies.
“We taught them the basics of science and whatever it is that applies to their particular design challenge so, that by the end of the week, they could actually apply some of these principles to a hands-on, fun and interactive approach to engineering,” Coffin said.
In this case, Coffin and his team challenged the students to construct small vehicles from recycled materials that would be pushed down a series of slides and bumpy ramps. The vehicles held 50 milliliters of water and had large holes cut into the top. The goal was to spill as little water as possible.
Coffin said that while many students avoid engineering because they don’t perceive themselves to be gifted in math or science, he was impressed by the amount of creativity he saw.
“Over the years, you’re sort of put through the machine and trained to think in a certain way,” Coffin said. “But these kids came up with things that I never would have thought of.”
“If you were to do this project with older kids, I think that you would see a lot less variety of ideas,” Coffin added.
Savannah said that the biggest challenge was communicating with the other members of her group.
“Working together was the hardest part, but then we got over that because we had to get our submission in,” Savannah said.
Despite that, Lilley said she saw growth.
“This freedom of thought has led to a great deal of collaboration,” Lilley said. “I have seen very little off-task behavior, and they’re buying into it. They want to do well and talk to each other.”
One element of the project was to encourage students to engineer solutions to problems early iterations of their vehicles were experiencing. Savannah said she learned from the project.
“It takes a lot of trial and error because you’re going to make a lot of designs and you’re going to think that the first one is going to be perfect, but it’s usually not,” Savannah said. “You have to see what works and what doesn’t when you’re trying.”
For example, Jouett student Kimmy Leckrone said the students added bubble wrap and cloth to their vehicle to help reduce friction.
In addition, Lilley said pairing the hands-on approach with engineering content will only serve the children later in life.
“With all of the technology available to students, I think that there is a sense of instant gratification, so being able to hook them into something that they wouldn’t normally choose is important because then they’ll have more choices,” Lilley said.
As Coffin and his team prepare for their lives after college, he said he hopes that the project lit a fire in at least a few students.
“Hopefully this sparks the interest of some of the kids in the class to pursue or look into engineering maybe a little more than they already have,” Coffin said.