Expanding the Engineering Curriculum with Competitive Construction

BY Bob Porto

Lawrence School

Project Description

The purpose of this grant is to purchase construction materials for our 8th Grade Engineering Program. As our program has grown, I have developed two competitive event projects to provide each team of students ownership in unique school traditions. Students use their engineering, woodworking, measurement and planning skills to construct racing carts for annual outdoor events which are used as the culmination of integrated units incorporating English, Social Studies, Math, Science and Engineering.

Each academic team consists of roughly 100 students who participate in engineering for a 60-day period. The Iditarod is run in mid-March after a week of following the Alaskan race in real time. Students spend 3 weeks designing and building carts to race around a mile-long course, with accurately scaled checkpoints proportionally measured in their math class, while writing letters to actual mushers as part of a composition unit in their English class. This has become an annual community event which involves elementary students and other community members who participate in construction and attending the event.

The DaVinci Dash is run in mid-June and is a project in which students explore physics and build carts that include pendulums, catapults, pulleys and steering mechanisms to compete in 10 physics-based stations around the school. Connections are made to physics lessons in their science class and history lessons in Social Studies.

These have become annual events that students anticipate with excitement and I hope to continue and expand them with your support.

How will the project be evaluated (e.g. how will you gauge its success)

The main question as this process unfolds will be: do students have a greater understanding of kinetic physics, planning, measurement, calculation and the Engineering Design Process as a result of this project? This will be evaluated in several ways. First, students will complete a written reflection on their experience, including suggestions of how it may be improved in the future. Second, students will complete an assessment of their use of the Engineering Design Process, a common thread that runs through the Engineering class, during the design and construction phases of the project. More qualitative evaluation will come through observation, as the projects students construct will be used by them and their peers, while younger students may observe, share and discuss their plans for future projects. As we hope to continue these annual events, many students will benefit from the race which will be open to the entire school and wider community to attend. Since these have become annual events, students in the school regularly approach me with excitement to ask which project their team will participate in each year.

Benefit to the students and the school

There are many advantages to these unique projects. First, they allow our students to hone their woodworking skills while meeting state engineering standards for tool use, planning and construction and most importantly the Design Process. Second, they invest in students a sense of ownership and community by allowing them to plan and create a product that will not only serve an immediate purpose in the competition, but will also be available for later generations of students to critique and improve upon. Third, they expose students to the planning and collaboration process that is a necessary skill in effective community building as they work together to make decisions regarding what will be the best project for each group to construct as a whole. Finally, the school community as whole benefit as students see their peers working together in front of the larger school community, fostering a sense of cooperation and school spirit.

In recent years, I have been able to expand the benefits beyond our school, inviting elementary school students to participate by taking rides on the vehicles after the race, which allows them a chance to see what experiences await them at Lawrence. Each year we have a visit from the entire 4th grade of a local elementary school, where they help us with vehicle construction for an afternoon. This is a chance for our students to serve as mentors and for younger students to feel empowered to participate in a tangible way. This year’s 8th grade class is the first class that participated as 4th graders, and they all remember it well!

Timeline of Project (when will you do the project, if applicable)

Planning will begin upon notification of grant receipt, with construction to begin in mid-February for the Iditarod and mid-May for the DaVinci Dash. This will allow students approximately three weeks in which to design, select, construct and test their sleds before the culmination of the project in the race. We look forward to continuing these annual events with your help.

Videos of past Iditarod and DaVinci Dash projects can be found on my website at https://vimeo.com/bobporto/videos.