By Lauren Rose, Trinity School Science Teacher
No matter where engineering happens at Trinity, it follows the same basic design process: define a problem, develop solutions; and test and develop designs. Students must determine what the problem is, how they will solve it, and then find ways to improve it. After the problem has been defined, students need ample time to brainstorm and plan solutions. Then a model is constructed and tested. The final, and perhaps most important, part of the process is reflection and redesign. Students who engage in the engineering design process must first learn that trial and error does occur. Understanding that preliminary designs may not solve the problem helps students learn from their mistakes and find ways to improve.
In the Science Lab at Trinity School, First through Fourth Grade students engage in the engineering design process several times during the school year. First Graders are introduced to engineering design, while Fourth Graders complete the entire process from start to finish. The process looks slightly different from grade to grade, but the basic principles are developed and reinforced.
First Grade Design Project
Stripes the Tiger, our school mascot, helped First Graders define a problem for their first engineering design project. After sharing an interview I conducted with Stripes about his job at Trinity, students identified the problems he was experiencing and brainstormed ways to solve them. One of Stripes' main challenges was mobility. As our school mascot, Stripes loves visiting students in their classrooms but needed a more efficient way to get around. He also shared that his thick fur is too hot for Atlanta weather and he needed a way to stay cool. Stripes also enjoys playing with Trinity students at recess, but usually forgets to bring his favorite sports equipment with him.
First Graders began planning solutions, often changing their ideas as things like hallway width, model color, and potential cost were considered. They created colorful, detailed sketches of their solutions to Stripes’ problems. First Graders were very eager to create models of their designs and gather feedback from Stripes.
Fourth Grade Design Project
As part of their science curriculum, Fourth Graders study weather between the months of October and December. In 2015, while immersed in our study, tropical storm Patricia grew to a category 5 hurricane, devastating parts of Mexico and Central America. We followed the storm closely, monitoring the wind speeds, storm surges, and changes in atmospheric pressure. Students were curious about the damage caused to families, their homes, and towns. Thus began our first engineering design challenge of the school year.
Fourth Graders began defining the problem by looking at photos of the destruction, watching videos, and reading first-hand accounts. They wondered if there were certain structural designs that could be incorporated into the construction of coastal homes to help make them “hurricane-proof.” A basic Internet search helped students gather ideas and begin brainstorming and planning. Once the basic designs were sketched, students created models using basic classroom materials, such as straws, popsicle sticks, and construction paper. Next came the testing phase. To simulate hurricane-strength winds, we used a backyard leaf blower and blasted the models from varying distances and strengths to represent the increasing categories. While the resistance of the homes varied, we focused on gaining feedback from our peers, reflecting on the process, and determining ways to improve our designs.
Engineering Design Develops Critical Thinking Skills
Engineering design can seem like a daunting process to undertake in the classroom, but the benefits more than outweigh the planning and preparation needed to accomplish the project. Trinity students not only learn necessary science content, but they also develop critical thinking skills, the ability to work cooperatively with others, and the utilization of innovation and empathy to solve problems. They are becoming global citizens and leaders.