Elementary students learn engineering principles

Students in Sandee Heighton's class at Shadow Lake Elementary test their design of a prosthetic fin for a toy fish, which they created as part of a unit on bioengineering.
Students in Sandee Heighton's class at Shadow Lake Elementary test their design of a prosthetic fin for a toy fish, which they created as part of a unit on bioengineering.
Students in Sandee Heighton's class at Shadow Lake Elementary test their design of a prosthetic fin for a toy fish, which they created as part of a unit on bioengineering.
Students in Sandee Heighton’s class at Shadow Lake Elementary test their design of a prosthetic fin for a toy fish, which they created as part of a unit on bioengineering.

Students in Tahoma elementary classrooms have the chance to try out the thought process of engineers, tackling challenges during science lessons that inspire them to learn more and helping them make real-world connections.

The challenge of the day in Rachel Turian’s class at Cedar River Elementary recently was to build a model bridge working in groups. But first, the class worked together to test the materials provided for strength, water resistance and other characteristics, making notes in their science journals as they proceeded. Taking turns, Turian and her students placed foil, construction papers, wax paper, clay, cloth, pipe cleaners and cardboard across the top of two cardboard tubes standing in as bridge support columns. They carefully placed blocks on top of the test materials, and recorded anything they observed in their journals.

To one side of the whiteboard, a stand holds a diagram of the engineering process: Define the problem, develop solutions, optimize. If a failure point is reached, develop further solutions and optimize/make it better once again.

As one student placed a length of cardboard across the support columns, Turian asks, “Do you have a prediction?” A few classmates shared what they thought would happen, then the test proceeded. The cardboard and the clay were the only two materials that held a significant number of blocks.

After testing the strength of the materials, the class moved on to observe whether each material changed when exposed to water, to simulate a weather change.

Bioengineering and prosthetics

In Sandee Heighton’s fourth-grade class at Shadow Lake Elementary, students recently used the design process to come up with prosthetic fins to help toy fish with simulated injuries. Heighton, who also teaches science to Camerin Dye’s class, shared a book called “Winter’s Tale: How One Little Dolphin Learned to Swim Again,” as well as some video clips with her students. The students in both classes watched how some wind-up toys “swam” when they had a tail/fins, then were presented with a toy without a tail and were challenged to design and create one out of quilter’s plastic.

The project spawned lots of discussion and great questions, and kept the students interested and engaged, Heighton said. “I loved it when they would find out their tail didn’t work, and they wouldn’t be disappointed — they would just go back and work on their idea more.”

“They loved it. Their big thing was, they didn’t know much about prosthetics,” she said. “Two or three kids came up to me and said they want to be a biomedical engineer. That, to me, is success. … It’s Future Ready, getting kids thinking about jobs and skills. Science isn’t just information; it’s a lot of creation and improving the world.”

On one bulletin board is a series of posters from throughout the project, about the design process, new vocabulary words, information about types of models, and also details about bottlenose dolphins like Winter.

“Sometimes, we read about things or see them in a movie and it seems like it’s a long way from an elementary classroom,” Shadow Lake Principal Mike Hanson said. “This is one example where we can bridge that gap and bring this experience directly to our kids in the classroom.”

In a fun coincidence, Heighton and one of her students who is in Shadow Lake’s 3-D printing zero hour class discussed the chance for him to design and print a prosthetic tail to meet the challenge.

“Our super-generous PTA has been supporting a lot of our efforts toward providing additional STEM opportunities for our kids,” Hanson said, noting that the parent-teacher group bought kits for two robotics classes and supplies for Lego engineering as well as a 3D printer.

“For me, part of the ‘why’ is the more opportunities where we can connect what we’re learning with the real world, the bigger impact we have on our kids and the more motivated they are,” he said. “This is aligned with where we’re at technology-wise in society and what the technology is capable of; it’s exciting for us and for them.”

Liz White, who teaches Project Lead the Way Launch classes and helps coordinate STEM, said that experiences like these help students understand that humans design solutions daily, from small to large scale.

“Some are tweaks to existing designs and some are revolutionary, but they improve human life and our planet,” White said. “These are relevant, engaging, needed, collaborative and hands-on learning experiences that transfer to our STEM coding and robotics projects when we design and construct games on our robots and, of course, these experiences will transfer to the real world!”

Student voices

Four students shared their thoughts about the project:

Eben N.: “I liked when we got to test our designs to see how good they worked. The biggest challenge was trying to get it to work (right).”

River K.: “The challenging part was making the tail the right shape and size. We looked at the tail on the toy that worked and looked back at our tail and tried to copy that.”

Regan N.: “I liked when we got to design our own tail because I had never really done that before. It was fun because you got to choose the shape and length.”

Maya H.: “I liked being able to design a prosthetic of any style. The challenging part was getting it to swim right and not swim on its side. We made the fin bigger. Something new I learned was I didn’t know you could create prosthetic tails for (animals).”

A student in Rachel Turian's second-grade class at Cedar River Elementary tests how many blocks a flattened piece of clay can hold, while the rest of the class watches via the document camera. The classmates took turns testing materials for strength, water resistance and other characteristics, while recording their properties in science journals before tackling a bridge-building challenge in science.
A student in Rachel Turian’s second-grade class at Cedar River Elementary tests how many blocks a flattened piece of clay can hold, while the rest of the class watches via the document camera. The classmates took turns testing materials for strength, water resistance and other characteristics, while recording their properties in science journals before tackling a bridge-building challenge in science.