Obi-Wan Adobe: Engineering for Strength
Helping people in developing communities around the world is a focus for many engineers. How familiar are your fifth-grade students with the developing world? Can they image a world without computers, cell phones and giant steel skyscrapers? Can they imagine creating a home using local materials? This activity introduces students to a community in Peru where homes are built from adobe bricks—a concept that might be very new for young students! In addition to providing children with a new perspective on the world, this activity teaches the fundamental concepts of variables (independent, dependent and control) and proportions while youngsters get their hands dirty through experiments to determine what materials mixture creates the strongest adobe bricks. By activity end, students have learned about the importance of experimentation and testing for engineering success, as well as gained new insights on unfamiliar places in the world.
Creative Engineering Design
How did engineers at Apple™ invent the amazing iPhone®? Or, how did engineers at Beats™ by Dr. Dre™ invent fantastic devices for listening to music? In both cases, engineers recognized consumer needs, conducted research and designed and re-designed products to fit those needs. This comprehensive unit combines research with creativity to teach students how the engineering design loop is necessary to bring innovative engineering projects from ideas to reality. By following the steps of this design process, students learn the power of doing via hands-on, creative engineering. Taught individually through six unique activities, or as a semester-long unit, students practice all steps of the design loop and learn the value of brainstorming, problem-solving and working within constraints. Student teams research and solve various project challenges, all while experiencing the different design stages. From identifying the need in the early stages to marketing a product in the final stages of product implementation, this unit provides high school students with a clear grasp of the impact of engineering on our everyday lives.
Engineer a Sneaker
Sneakers can get smelly quickly, but this activity is far from stinky! By defining design constraints, studying materials properties, and applying these concepts to design and construct new sneakers, fifth-graders explore several aspects of engineering. First, they analyze a product's function and components to determine how to make a sneaker "better." Then teams brainstorm, design, sketch and build prototype sneakers using basic materials already found in your classroom! This activity provides students with a fun, applicable engineering design activity that lets them "run" with their ideas and creativity! Similar "engineering design of footware" activities may be found on TeachEngineering for other target grades; search for Sneaking Up on Sneakers activity (grade 3), Fancy Feet activity (grade 7), and Convertible Shoes: Function, Fashion and Design > High Arches, Low Arches lesson/activity set (grade 10).
Put Your Heart into Engineering
If a child's blood vessels were laid end-to-end, they would be long enough to circle the Earth more than 2-1/2 times! Who knew that 60,000 miles of blood vessels flow through a young person? And, an adult's blood vessels would circle the Earth more than 4 times! What amazing facts. Students learn how important valves are in our bodies for maintaining the correct flow of blood through these miles of veins, capillaries and arteries. Engineers learn how to better simulate valves by studying the workings of other valves outside the body. They transfer this knowledge, through modern technology, to create high-tech artificial heart valves to improve the lives of sick or dying people. Engineers must first understand our blood vascular system and the need for proper valve construction in order to imagine how to improve it. This lesson provides students with the background knowledge about heart valves, and through the accompanying activity, they act as biomedical engineers working on their own life-saving devices: artifical heart valves.
Lunch in Outer Space!
Imagine being an astronaut on a spaceship far away from planet Earth... What would it be like to eat? To drink? Fifth-graders are intrigued with this idea and in this activity, they learn all about the food that astronauts bring with them into outer space and what makes it so tricky to eat in outer space. Then students are challenged to work as if they were NASA engineers to design a form of food or device or packaging to help astronauts eat in space. This open-ended design challenge taps into students' imaginations, while they learn and follow the steps of the engineering design process. After building models, students present their creations to their classmates. The wonder and awe of life in outer space provides motivation for students to see what their imaginations can produce.
Designing a Medical Device to Extract Foreign Bodies from the Ear
What can you do when your little brother puts a pebble in his ear? In this activity, students act as biomedical engineers to solve this problem by designing devices using common classroom materials. Students apply their knowledge of the human body and collaborate in teams to design the most cost-effective and efficient tools to extract something from a model ear. Then they present their devices to the class and explain how their tools can relieve the pain in their brothers' ears! Engaging, and applicable to a real-life problem, this activity gives students an understanding of how engineering, and the science and math they're studying, have a purpose and importance worth learning.
Do your students remember the tsunami started by an earthquake---that hit Japan in March 2011? Were they impacted by superstorm Sandy in October 2012? These massive and destructive events were all over global news. The tsunami generated huge concerns across the planet because of the nuclear crisis caused by radiation leaks. While humans cannot prevent tsunamis or hurricanes from happening, engineers can play a critical role in developing strategies and technologies to assist in detecting natural hazards and preventing potential destruction from them. In this lesson, students learn about how tsunamis are caused and examples of the helpful technologies developed by engineers. Having the human impact of these real-live disasters so fresh in their memories provides motivation and intrigue for students to learn the role engineers play in mitigating disasters.
Manufacturing Technologies: Making a Picture Frame
Good news... your soccer team won the tournament. As a surprise, you want to make copies of the team photo taken with the trophy, frame it and give one to each of your teammates. But, what can you do to come up with a less expensive frame? Your mother suggests that you make frames.What!? You immediately doubt your ability to undertake such a project. You actually do have the skill to engineer frames on your own. This activity teaches you how to make a frame using recycled (and very common) household materials while learning the benefits of manufacturing processes. Not only is manufacturing a very present industry in our nation, it is a good example of "engineering at work." Manufacturing enables uniform parts and pieces that, when combined, create the things we use in our daily lives. The idea of manufacturing, of which the machinery itself is designed by engineers, allows companies to keep the costs of products down, both in time and cost to produce mass quantities of items. Manufacturing also aids in quality control, ensuring that products meet safety standards and are well made. This activity opens young students' eyes to the evidence of manufacturing in our everyday lives. Next time you pour yourself a bowl of cereal, consider the engineering and manufacturing that goes into the creation of the cereal box and milk container.
When you mention Mars in a middle school classroom, you get questions like: What is out there? Who (or what) lives on that planet? How can we find out more about this planet? and When is lunch? The Edible Rovers activity answers all of these questions, including the one about lunch. Student teams design their own Mars rovers using edible supplies, thus satisfying their hunger for exploration, as well as their hunger for a snack! The youngsters must consider various constraints as they brainstorm and design possible solutions. Once they determine their designs and build their rovers, they present their final products for design review---at which time they must justify why they implemented certain design decisions based on what they know about Mars. This engaging and yummy activity fits perfectly into middle school space curriculum, as students must consider various factors while applying their knowledge to solve a real-world challenge.
Yogurt Cup Speakers
Middle school students love music, but they may not know much about sound or the speakers that deliver music to their ears. Do they know that the object that makes a speaker work is an electromagnet? During this hour-long activity, build on students' natural interest in music to teach electricity and magnetism fundamentals as students collaborate in teams to make their own working speakers using plastic yogurt containers. The idea behind the electromagnet in a speaker is simple and leads to the exploration of electric currents and magnetic fields and the properties and characteristics of magnets. After making their own electromagnets, determining magnetic field directions and making functioning speakers, they experiment with the amount and direction of current to see the impact on the speakers—just as engineers would do. Making and playing with the speakers helps students connect scientific concepts to what matters to them in the real world. Studying electromagnetism relates to so many devices that are pervasive in students' lives—it's the foundation of electrical engineering.
What Will Biodegrade?
What does it mean to throw "away" our trash? And what do we mean by biodegradable? Let your third graders find out for themselves and have fun getting their hands dirty at the same time. Students bury assorted types of trash in marked plots of soil outside. Digging up the trash a few months later, they investigate what biodegrades in soil and what does not. It's an experiential way for students to learn how composting can be used to recycle discarded materials, and the relationship between heat and decaying plant material. We talk about recycling all the time, but less so about composting and the natural path of decay for much of our trash, which returns it to the soil as a nutrient-rich resource for future life—a topic engineers must understand well when designing landfills so they take up minimal space and actually decompose organic matter.
Surgical Resident for a Day
These days, many surgeries are conducted without a major body incision. Often, just a small puncture into the body is all that is required to repair joints, remove damaged or diseased organs, or repair torn ligaments. It is truly amazing! This innovative process is made possible through engineering, and this activity immerses middle school students in this world as they act as "surgeons for the day" to learn how the surgical process affects the human body. They come to understand how engineering has made non-invasive surgery possible and appreciate the technology and skills required to create devices that improve our health. Through this activity exploration, students imagine themselves involved in creating things for society!
Energy Systems and Solutions
This comprehensive unit is the winner of the 2009 Premier Curriculum Award for K-12 Engineering. Through 8 lessons and 17 activities, students gather knowledge and understanding towards solving one "grand challenge." With engineering problems to solve, students become engaged in real-world applications, which we know reinforces subject matter retention. The topics in this unit raise students' awareness of issues surrounding our society's energy situation and its importance in their own lives while teaching basic energy concepts (forms, states, conversions, efficiency, etc.). To make the material relevant to eighth-graders, a variety of engaging activities range from an award-winning energy choices board game to home energy audits. Students apply their accumulated knowledge to a culminating project in which they propose actions they can take to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and/or provide a positive solution for our nation's ongoing energy demand.
A House is a House for Me
If you could live anywhere in the world and in the climate of your choice, what sort of a house would you design? Hook fourth-grade students with this challenge! They'll bring their imaginations to the table as they concurrently learn about world climates and building types. Student pairs brainstorm, design and sketch houses to withstand particular climates. Then they create small model houses and test them against simulations of "the elements" of different climates (rain, heat, earthquakes, tornadoes). Youngsters leave the activity knowing the basics of structural design and experimentation, several climate types, and a new awareness of the impact of climate on the building of structures. Bonus: This design-build-test activity is ready for personalization for your classroom-perhaps for the study of a particular climate or country, or certain types of building designs or methodology, or specific structure/material tests.
Wizardry and Chemistry
Today's high school students have grown up fascinated with the Harry Potter series of books and movies. So what could be more fun for them than to make their own "magic wands" and then face off in a class duel to test wands of different chemical compositions? That's just what is presented in this activity---a fun and engaging review for stoichiometry, thermodynamics, redox and kinetics, as well as advanced placement course review. The resulting pyrotechnics from these low-intensity sparklers (muggle-versions of magic wands) are variable because they're dependent upon how well students conduct the lab. Through this engaging activity, students gain practical lab practice and review of reaction rates, Gibb's free energy, process chemistry and metallurgy.
Working Together to Live Together
Cities all over the world are expanding rapidly and new communities are popping up everywhere. As part of city planning, civil and environmental engineers often face conflicting constraints, and they know that "it's all about balance." During this activity, students explore a real-world example of how engineers face the challenges of creating new community developments while balancing the needs of the environment. Growing human populations need places to live, but engineers must also find ways to protect local ecosystems from habitat destruction. Student groups examine this problem, each using a different animal species habitat in a specific biome (deciduous forest, desert, or grassland), and design green developments that respect their habitats. This activity was created and tested by classroom teachers as part of the University of Houston Research Experiences for Teachers program.
Test and Treat Before You Drink
By creating access to clean water, engineers improve human health and save lives around the world. This lesson really hones in on how important engineering is to our everyday lives as students learn how effective water quality testing affects millions of people. Through the accompanying activity, students do water quality testing (coliform bacteria, turbidity) and learn what is involved in basic water treatment designs. It is wonderful that they understand exactly why harmful bacteria should not be present in our water ---- not just told that it shouldn't be there. And, students apply their own creativity to design and build prototype miniature water treatment facilities, acting as engineers to understand their role in preventing water-borne diseases and illnesses.
Light It Up
To get more light, we open the curtains or turn on a light switch. What else could we do? And, how can we be smart about energy use at the same time? Through this lesson and two activities, high school students learn about creative ways in which engineers address these challenges-from "daylighting" techniques that reduce the need for artificial lighting to the design and selection of light fixtures and energy-efficient bulbs that meet specific needs. Students are presented with information about the electromagnetic spectrum, heat transfer and the greenhouse effect, and the components of energy-efficient lighting systems. These concepts become meaningful as teens design and construct their own model houses and greenhouses that maximize natural lighting to interior spaces, and experiment with daylighting systems based on observations and calculations for the optimal use of sunlight. This lesson is successful in its mix of the conceptual with hands-on exploration, all while showing students how engineers contribute to our health, happiness and safety.
What's Hot and What's Not?
We constantly tell children: "Don't put your hand on the burner!" We tell them that it could be hot and burn them very badly. Do we tell them why it might be hot? Do we explain the concept of heat transfer? Usually, we do not. Through this lesson and its accompanying activity, students learn the basic physics of heat transfer by means of conduction, convection and radiation. They apply these newly learned (or reviewed) concepts as they work in teams to solve two heat transfer problems: maintaining the warm temperature of one soda can filled with water, and then cooling an identical soda can of warm water during the same 30-minute time period. Students love putting their imaginations to work to figure out this mind-boggling challenge. And, as a bonus, students understand why they shouldn't touch that burner!
Sound Booth Construction
Middle school students sure love to listen to music, but do they ever really think about why the music sounds so good coming though their ear buds? Probably not. Do they ever sit in a movie theater and wonder why they cannot hear the movie that is playing in the next theater? Probably not. Through this activity, students explore the concepts of "sound dampening," sound reflection, absorption and movement to fully understand why sounds sound they way they do. Students express their creativity by designing and building a miniature sound booth using common household materials. This is a fun, engaging activity for teaching students about sound!
Laser Light Properties: Protecting the Mummified Troll!
Mythbusters watch out! In this unit, students prove that they can make a pickle glow and create a security system on their own. Be aware: don't underestimate the ability of your middle school students in learning the advanced use of lasers, as this unit captures the essence of the complicated concept at an appropriate level. This is a creative, fun unit that teaches students about the properties of light - the concepts of light absorption, transmission, reflection and refraction, as well as the behavior of light during interference - to understand the concept of lasers. Then, they design an invisible security system to protect the school's a treasured artifact. This unit definitely engages students to use their imaginations while learning.
What is more exciting for students than detective work? In this 90-minute activity, students learn that some environmental engineers help solve cases that affect community health, just like on TV! The students are "hired" to locate the source of a chemical pollution spill in the ground and design a clean-up process using samples of soil from the area. They measure the pH of several soil samples to find the concentration of the pollutant in a hypothetical site and then learn how to predict the direction of groundwater flow using mathematical modeling. Finally, the students draw their results on a map and develop a solution for the contaminated water based on current processes used for groundwater treatment. The context the students follow during this activity is very similar to what happens when groundwater contamination is detected in the real-world. Most of the time, it's a mystery --- no one knows when or where it originated, and sometimes, no one even knows what was spilled. Environmental engineers are asked to help classify these spills and recommend treatment, occasionally testifying in a courtroom for the case.
What happens to your food or medicine after you swallow it? Medical practitioners, scientists and engineers are interested in this question and your students will be too, as they are drawn into the bioengineering world through a simple opening demo using coated and uncoated aspirin and a few kitchen supplies. The demo illustrates the chemical workings of the human digestive system, while introducing the concept of simulations and modeling to middle school students as a way professionals safely test real-life processes and situations. Students' motivation for learning is strengthened through a real-world example of why it might be important for them (as engineers!) to understand how the human body functions (to design medical technologies and test new medicines). In an associated hands-on activity, "Protect that Pill," teams design protective coatings for pieces of candy and test their performance using clear soda to simulate stomach acid. This lesson is one of 10 lessons in the Biomedical Engineering and the Human Body unit.
Design Inspired by Nature
This hands-on engineering activity taps into the naturally boundless creativity of young adults. Middle school students learn two key concepts: 1) taking the approach of "reverse engineering" to discover the technical principles of an object by systematically taking it apart, and 2) looking to nature for inspiration (biomimicry), especially when designing out-of-the-box technological products and solutions to human challenges. As students reverse engineer a flower, they glean design ideas for new "engineered" products. What better way to ignite students' innate creativity than to have them turn to animals and plants for inspiration of their own new creations? After reverse engineering, as guided by a student worksheet, groups brainstorm potential new products based on what they observed. The possibilities are endless! The assessment suggestions are especially helpful in connecting to students' creativity; they include a listening and a sketching activity. This activity is one of two that work in tandem with the Copycat Engineers lesson that introduces the idea of biomimicry for 7th graders.
Land on the Run
Landslides and mudslides are dramatic and fun for fourth-graders to think about, and a perfect topic from which to learn about gravity and friction, as well as other earth science topics. The lesson introduces students to landslides - their basic characteristics, nine different types, behavior and speeds, and natural and human triggers. The description of how engineers study and mitigate landslides is so informative (using small models, using giant hillside simulation models, creating computer models, creating rocks with built-in sensors, building landslide channels) that students will talk about what engineers are doing to prevent and avoid landslides at home. The associated activity, "Mini-Landslide," describes the materials needed for a "mini debris chute," which is suitable for a classroom demonstration, or a student activity, enabling teams to explore different ways in which landslides start and behave in response to the variables of material, slope and water content. This lesson is one of eight lessons in the Natural Disasters unit
Amusement Park Ride: Ups and Downs in Design
Have you ever played Marble Madness for the original Nintendo? In this activity, students design roller coasters for marbles in a similar manner to that video game. I've used it in 7th grade science classes a number of times to introduce kinetic and potential energy. I especially like this activity for three reasons. First, the nature of the project produces many different exciting designs. Second, the kids can work in larger design teams of 3-4 because the larger materials lend themselves well to larger groups. Third, despite the large projects, this activity is also relatively easy to clean up. Once you remove the tape, the insulation can be kept and reused from year to year if you have storage space. Of course the main reason I like the activity is that kids really enjoy it and it provides them a fun way to see important introductory physics concepts. This activity was highlighted by the Junior Engineering Technical Society (JETS) as part of Engineer's Week in 2008.
Engineers Speak for the Trees
This activity builds on Dr. Seuss' much-loved "The Lorax" book, asking fourth-grade student teams to serve as natural resources and city planning engineers. In an excellent math component (including helpful worksheets), students calculate how long it would take to re-build the forest (nearly wiped out, in the story). Then, student engineering teams individually and collaboratively plan (and sketch) a city, coming together to balance the needs and desires of the commercial, industrial, residential, utilities, parks and recreational land use sectors, while protecting the natural environment. Always a good Earth Day fable - "The Lorax" story illustrates how overdevelopment can cause long-lasting environmental destruction if left to a short-sighted and self-centered society. Highlight the "Four Laws of Ecology" if you use this this activity to feature Earth Day. Or, use this activity any time you want to introduce engineering and the design process to youngsters, especially as it applies to the human-built environment (city planning and urban infrastructure).
Engineering for the Three Little Pigs
In this well-rounded activity for third-graders studying earth science, students build three different sand castles and test them for strength and resistance to weathering. It starts with hands-on measurement and mixing of physical materials (glue, sand, water) as students create building material prototype buildings, and continues on to prediction of testing outcome before the (fun!) testing of the dried sample composite materials, using water for rain, and bricks for building load. This activity takes students beyond the study of rocks, soils and minerals into the world of material properties, making them aware of the engineering evaluation that goes into choosing the best building materials (and combinations!) for construction projects. Students learn how properties (weight, strength, cost, ease of use, weather resistance, aesthetics), play a part in meeting the construction needs for function, safety and reliability. This activity supports the "Earth Rocks!" lesson, one of eight lessons in the "Engineering for the Earth" unit.