What do you think about when you hear the word Engineer? Hopefully more than Dilbert! I think of creative and disciplined problem solvers. I’m still amazed to think that all of our fourth to eighth grade students have the opportunity to learn about this broad field every week for three hours per week, and I’m surprised at the level of work that our high-school students do in their engineering courses.
Almost seven years and hundreds of projects after we designed the engineering curriculum (read here about our vision), like the Engineering Design Process we teach, we continue to test, iterate, and enjoy the ride. We are fortunate that our engineering teachers have been educated as engineers, and bring what they learned in school and in industry to the classroom. Our engineering lab affords our students the opportunity to couple design with problem solving, creativity with physical creations, and fun with teamwork. We do this through a gradual progression of longer, more challenging projects that introduce new materials, teamwork skills, design thinking, and eventually integrate computing with engineering.
In 4th and 5th grades, students are introduced to various disciplines of engineering, which include mechanical, civil, electrical, aeronautical, environmental, chemical, industrial, ocean, aerospace, optical, and transportation projects. The science behind the particular engineering challenge is taught in a just-in-time lesson, before putting it to practice to work on the project. The projects tend to be three-week long projects that students work on individually or in pairs. They also work on a couple of slightly longer projects, including a multidisciplinary project, Leonardo’s Bridge, that brings to life what they are learning about in History.
In 6th and 7th grades, we add complexity by introducing a larger team project with four to five students on the project team. For students, this is the first time that they have had to work on a team this size and learning how to work together to achieve a common goal is a skill that we believe is important to their future. Students are also now able to work with new materials, such as wood and metal. These more complex projects are also now longer, taking two to three months. Students learn skills such as prototyping and how to make orthographic and isometric drawings. Projects include a chair, a walking robot, an underwater robot, a putt-putt boat, and a rocket car. Additionally, students are introduced to the concept of a client with an organizer project that is needed to “organize something a teacher has requested” at school. They learn how to interview their client (a teacher) in order to understand their requirements, then communicate throughout as they design, and eventually construct and test the organizer that will then be used by the teacher.
In 8th grade, we focus on a year-long mechatronics project - the electric guitar. Students start the year by learning computer-aided design (CAD) using Fusion 360. To learn about computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), they mill their projects using a CNC machine. Finally, they work on painting and finishing their projects. They practice these steps with smaller projects such as signs, desks, or coasters. If you are able to come by for a tour, check out the beautiful desks designed by our students in the past two years. Finally, they begin to work on the body of an electric guitar. After these have been designed and milled, we put it together with the neck of the guitar, and work on the electronics. By the end of the year our students have a working electric guitar designed and constructed by them that they can take home to rock with over the summer!
As our students enter the high-school years, we emphasize design and communication. Our students maintain engineering notebooks and learn how to complete and present a final poster of their project, where we invite members of the community to their presentations. Our 9th and 10th grade engineering classes are centered around a theme and include Engineering Solar-Powered Outdoor Monitoring Systems, Engineering Design: The Amusement Park, and Engineering Design: Sea, Air, Earth. The high-school projects are multidisciplinary in that they are also run by microcontrollers and computers, such as Arduinos or Raspberry Pis.
Like computer science, we also have electives and clubs for those kids who just can’t get enough - even with a core class dedicated to engineering! We have a Mechanical Engineering: Battlebots class which ends in a competition that the school really gets into. If you’ve watched the show, you can imagine what it’s like. Our engineering clubs include the student-requested Nature Constructors, who engineer outdoor structures (thank you Mr. Johnny!), Drone Club, Rocketry Club, and the Inventor’s Club which is our very own Genius Hour.
I’d like to end this curriculum update with some of my fondest memories of the projects that they have worked on. The cardboard boats that 4th and 5th graders engineer are definitely a fan fave. I’m smiling as I think of the kids carrying their boats that have to hold them without sinking as they paddle across a lake. And then watching the ones who returned laughing and wet from the testing! Somehow, the underwater robots usually end with at least one wet student as well! The wooden go-kart can be credited with some of the fondest and funniest memories. We tackled a food computer/server, which was quite challenging and educational, especially when the cooling system started flooding and we couldn’t figure out how to get the water to stop. Yes - wet again! And the time that the rocket that was supposed to fly vertically “decided” to turn and take off horizontally? The kids definitely learned how not to design a rocket. We have missed showcasing our work at the Maker Faires and the USA Science and Engineering Fair, but you can see some of the videos from our past work. The Engineering Lab is like a second home to many of our kids, and I can’t think of our school without Engineering being part of our core. Thank you Mr. Nick, Mr. Ryan, and Mr. Johnny for bringing your excitement and expertise to our school.
I’ll be back next Tuesday to bring Computer Science and Engineering together with our 11th and 12th grade Artificial Intelligence classes.
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Juliana Heitz is co-founder of Ideaventions Academy and is very excited to share the thinking behind the Academy.
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