Engineering to Learn Science

I teach a one-trimester 9th grade course called Engineering & Physical Science.  For the engineering standards, I fell into the same kind of engineering projects that I’ve seen many science teachers fall into.  My students did a short straw tower project that did an okay job of teaching the nature of engineering standards from the Minnesota Science Standards and was something the students enjoyed, but connected to science concepts at a superficial level, at best.  I was well aware that, since students were not able to apply their knowledge in a meaningful way to design their towers, the project was really just tinkering.

This summer, thanks to a combination of my district’s participation in the University of Minnesota EngrTEAMS project and a generous grant from 3M, I was able to not only get some professional development over what good engineering instruction looks like, but I got the significant curriculum writing time and the materials budget that developing more meaningful engineering instruction takes.  The past two weeks in my 9th grade classroom, I had the rewarding experience of implementing the unit I developed with a teacher from St. Paul Public Schools and an instructional coach from EngrTEAMS.

The unit began with instruction over Newton’s Laws to prepare students to design a cargo carrier that would protect an egg in a head-on collision after rolling down a ramp, a variation on the classic egg drop project.  To keep students focused on the cargo carriers, where they could apply Newton’s Laws most directly, we provided cars the carrier could Velcro to.  The cars also had a spot on the front to attach a Vernier Dual-Range Force Sensor to measure the impact force when the vehicle crashed.

student project

A student project ready to head down the ramp

Realistically, students could create an effective cargo carrier without knowing anything about Newton’s Laws, so a major instructional task has been to give students a reason to make the connection.  Next week, students will be delivering presentations where they make a pitch for their design, which must include references to Newton’s Laws to justify design decisions.  To prepare students for this task, I’ve been spending a lot of time going from group to group to ask them to explain what they are doing, and I’m excited about the results.  Students who are normally checked out were not only able to articulate connections between Newton’s Laws and their designs, but some even started participating in class discussions intended to extend their understanding to other contexts.  Even when I just listened in, rather thank asking about connections to Newton’s Laws, students had a lot of great conversations about how to use Newton’s Laws to improve their design.  Next week, students will be preparing presentations intended to serve as a pitch as their design and will have a chance to share what they’ve been thinking with the entire class.

The past week and a half, while students have been designing, building, and testing, my classroom has been chaos, filled with noise and mess and activity.  Because that chaos is a result of students who are engaged and excited about their work, I was glad to embrace it.  My challenge now is to find ways to bring some of that same energy and ownership into other topics in the 9th grade course.

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