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Capillary Action in Sand Activity

Published on October 19, 2016

As part of a (hypothetical) challenge to help a city find the most affordable and environmentally friendly way to clean up an oil spill, students design and conduct controlled experiments to quantify capillary action in sand. Like engineers and entrepreneurs, student teams use affordable materials to design and construct models to measure the rate of capillary action in four types of sand: coarse, medium, fine and mixed. After observing and learning from a teacher-conducted capillary tube demonstration, teams are given a selection of possible materials and a budget to work within as they design their own experimental setups. After the construction of their designs, they take measurements to quantify the rate of capillary action, create graphs to analyze the data, and make concluding recommendations. Groups compare data and discuss as a class the pros and cons of their designs. Pre- and post-evaluations and two worksheets are provided.

Using Microcontrollers to Model Homeostasis Activity

Published on October 6, 2016

Students learn about homeostasis and create models by constructing simple feedback systems using Arduino boards, temperature sensors, LEDs and Arduino code. Starting with pre-written code, students instruct LEDs to activate in response to the sensor detecting a certain temperature range. They determine appropriate temperature ranges and alter the code accordingly. When the temperature range is exceeded, a fan is engaged in order to achieve a cooling effect. In this way, the principle of homeostasis is demonstrated. To conclude, students write summary paragraphs relating their models to biological homeostasis.

Does It Cut It? Understanding Wind Turbine Blade Performance Activity

Published on September 30, 2016

Students gain an understanding of the factors that affect wind turbine operation. Following the steps of the engineering design process, engineering teams use simple materials (cardboard and wooden dowels) to build and test their own turbine blade prototypes with the objective of maximizing electrical power output for a hypothetical situation—helping scientists power their electrical devices while doing research on a remote island. Teams explore how blade size, shape, weight and rotation interact to achieve maximal performance, and relate the power generated to energy consumed on a scale that is relevant to them in daily life. A PowerPoint® presentation, worksheet and post-activity test are provided.

Magnetic Fields and Distance Activity

Published on September 22, 2016

Students measure the relative intensity of a magnetic field as a function of distance. They place a permanent magnet selected distances from a compass, measure the deflection, and use the gathered data to compute the relative magnetic field strength. Based on their findings, students create mathematical models and use the models to calculate the field strength at the edge of the magnet. They use the periodic table to predict magnetism. Finally, students create posters to communicate the details their findings. This activity guides students to think more deeply about magnetism and the modeling of fields while practicing data collection and analysis. An equations handout and two grading rubrics are provided.

Mutation Telephone Activity

Published on September 16, 2016

Students perform an activity similar to the childhood “telephone” game in which each communication step represents a biological process related to the passage of DNA from one cell to another. This game tangibly illustrates how DNA mutations can happen over several cell generations and the effects the mutations can have on the proteins that cells need to produce. Next, students use the results from the “telephone” game (normal, substitution, deletion or insertion) to test how the mutation affects the survivability of an organism in the wild. Through simple enactments, students act as “predators” and “eat” (remove) the organism from the environment, demonstrating natural selection based on mutation.

Mutations Lesson

Published on September 16, 2016

Students learn about mutations to both DNA and chromosomes, and uncontrolled changes to the genetic code. They are introduced to small-scale mutations (substitutions, deletions and insertions) and large-scale mutations (deletion duplications, inversions, insertions, translocations and nondisjunctions). The effects of different mutations are studied as well as environmental factors that may increase the likelihood of mutations. A PowerPoint® presentation and pre/post-assessments are provided.

The Search for Surfactants: What Is the Best Soap? Activity

Published on September 15, 2016

Student teams are challenged to evaluate the design of several liquid soaps to answer the question, “Which soap is the best?” Through two simple teacher class demonstrations and the activity investigation, students learn about surface tension and how it is measured, the properties of surfactants (soaps), and how surfactants change the surface properties of liquids. As they evaluate the engineering design of real-world products (different liquid dish washing soap brands), students see the range of design constraints such as cost, reliability, effectiveness and environmental impact. By investigating the critical micelle concentration of various soaps, students determine which requires less volume to be an effective cleaning agent, factors related to both the cost and environmental impact of the surfactant. By investigating the minimum surface tension of the soap, students determine which dissolves dirt and oil most effectively and thus cleans with the least effort. Students evaluate these competing criteria and make their own determination as to which of five liquid soaps make the “best” soap, giving their own evidence and scientific reasoning. They make the connection between gathered data and the real-world experience in using these liquid soaps.

Engineering Safety Activity

Published on September 14, 2016

Students are introduced to safety protocols by evaluating unsafe situations, sharing their ideas with their peers, developing a list of recommended safety protocols as a class, and finally, by comparing the class list to a standard list of safety rules. This activity seeks to demonstrate the importance of safety engineering and illustrate how it helps to prevent injuries and save lives. A PowerPoint® presentation, pre/post quiz and student handout are provided.

Solar Sails: The Future of Space Travel Activity

Published on September 9, 2016

Working as if they were engineers, students design and construct model solar sails made of aluminum foil to move cardboard tube satellites through “space” on a string. Working in teams, they follow the engineering design thinking steps—empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test, redesign—to design and test small-scale solar sails for satellites and space probes. During the process, learn about Newton’s laws of motion and the transfer of energy from wave energy to mechanical energy. A student activity worksheet is provided.

Soil Biosolarization: Using Food Waste and the Sun to Get Rid of Weeds in Soil Activity

Published on September 7, 2016

Over the course of three sessions, students act as agricultural engineers and learn about the sustainable pest control technique known as soil biosolarization in which organic waste is used to help eliminate pests during soil solarization instead of using toxic compounds like pesticides and fumigants. Student teams prepare seed starter pots using a source of microorganisms (soil or compost) and “organic waste” (such as oatmeal, a source of carbon for the microorganisms). They plant seeds (representing weed seeds) in the pots, add water and cover them with plastic wrap. At experiment end, students count the weed seedlings and assess the efficacy of the soil biosolarization technique in inactivating the weed seeds. An experiment-guiding handout and pre/post quizzes are provided.

A Daily Dose of Sun Keeps the Pests Away: How Soil Solarization Works Lesson

Published on September 7, 2016

Students learn how the process of soil solarization is used to pasteurize agricultural fields before planting crops. Soil solarization is a pest control technique in agriculture that uses the sun’s radiation to heat the soil and eliminate unwanted pests that could harm the crops. The approach is compared to other pest control methods such as fumigation and herbicide application, highlighting the respective benefits and drawbacks. In preparation for the associated hands-on activity on soil biosolarization, students learn how changing the variables involved in the solarizing process (such as the tarp material, soil water content and addition of organic matter) impacts the technique’s effectiveness. A PowerPoint® presentation and pre/post-quiz is provided.

Continuous Line Robots and Art Activity

Published on August 24, 2016

Students use the robot paths they documented during the associated Robots on Ice Engineering Challenge activity to learn about and then make artwork. During the previous activity, students recorded the path of their robots through a maze in order to collect data during a remote research simulation. Now, they take a new look at the robot paths, seeing them from an art perspective as continuous line drawings. Students learn about Picasso’s famous works of art that used the same technique. Then they learn the artistic definition of a line and see examples of how it is used in different art pieces; they practice making continuous line drawings and then create sculptures of their drawings using colorful wire. A PowerPoint® presentation is provided to guide the activity.

Robots on Ice Engineering Challenge Activity

Published on August 24, 2016

In a simulation of potential future space missions to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, student teams are challenged to direct a robot placed in an enclosed maze to search for and find the most “alien life.” The robot is equipped with a camera to send a live feed of its surroundings in the maze. Students control the robot from outside the maze by looking at the live feed on a smartphone and using the robot’s remote control, making a map as they go. The student teams compete as if they are space agencies creating their own exploratory systems to meet the challenge’s criteria and constraints and prove “in the field” that they have the best plan to win the mission contract and get the job. This activity simulates the real-world research of scientists and engineers developing a robot with the capabilities to explore under the ice-covered surface of Europa.

Robots on Ice Lesson

Published on August 24, 2016

Students learn about humankind’s search for life in outer space and how it connects to robotics and engineering. NASA is interested in sending exploratory missions to one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa, which requires a lot of preparatory research and development on Earth before it can happen. One robot currently being engineered as a proof of concept for a possible trip to explore Europa is the Icefin, which is an innovative robot that can explore under ice and in water, which are the believed conditions on Europa. This lesson provides students with intriguing information about far off (distance and time!) space missions and field robotics, and also sets up two associated robotics and arts integration activities to follow. The lesson can be used individually to provide new information to students, or as a precursor to the associated activities. A PowerPoint® presentation and worksheet are provided.

Diseases Exposed: ESR Test in the Classroom Activity

Published on August 23, 2016

Students demonstrate the erythrocyte sedimentation rate test (ESR test) using a blood model composed of tomato juice, petroleum jelly and olive oil. They simulate different disease conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, anemia, leukocytosis and sickle-cell anemia, by making appropriate variations in the particle as well as in the fluid matrix. Students measure the ESR for each sample blood model, correlate the ESR values with disease conditions and confirm that diseases alter blood composition and properties. During the activity, students learn that when non-coagulated blood is let to stand in a tube, the red blood cells separate and fall to the bottom of the tube, resulting in a sediment and a clear liquid called serum. The height in millimeters of the clear liquid on top of the sediment in a time period of one hour is taken as the sedimentation rate. If a disease is present, this ESR value deviates from the normal, disease-free value. Different diseases cause different ESR values because blood composition and properties, such as density and viscosity, are altered differently by different diseases. Thus, the ESR test serves as a real-world diagnostic screening test to identify indications of the presence of any diseases in people.

Communicating Your Results Activity

Published on August 3, 2016

Students groups create scientific research posters to professionally present the results of their AQ-IQ research projects, which serves as a conclusion to the unit. (This activity is also suitable to be conducted independently from its unit—for students to make posters for any type of project they have completed.) First, students critically examine example posters to gain an understanding of what they contain and how they can be made most effective for viewers. Then they are prompted to analyze and interpret their data, including what statistics and plots to use in their posters. Finally, groups are given a guide that aids them in making their posters by suggesting all the key components one would find in any research paper or presentation. This activity is suitable for presenting final project posters to classmates or to a wider audience in a symposium or expo environment. In addition to the poster-making guide, three worksheets, six example posters, a rubric and a post-unit survey are provided.

Study Design for Air Quality Research Activity

Published on August 3, 2016

Students take an in-depth look at what goes into planning a research project, which prepares them to take the lead on their own projects. Examining a case study, students first practice planning a research project that compares traditional cook stoves to improved cook stoves for use in the developing world. Then they compare their plans to one used in the real-world by professional researchers, gaining perspective and details on the thought and planning that goes into good research work. Then students are provided with example materials, a blank template and support to take them from brainstorming to completing a detailed research plan for their own air quality research projects. Conducting students’ AQ-IQ research studies requires additional time and equipment beyond this planning activity. Then after the data is collected and analyzed, teams interpret the data and present summary research posters by conducting the next associated activity Numerous student handouts and a PowerPoint® presentation are provided.

Understanding the Air through Data Analysis Activity

Published on August 3, 2016

Students build on their existing air quality knowledge and a description of a data set to each develop a hypothesis around how and why air pollutants vary on a daily and seasonal basis. Then they are guided by a worksheet through an Excel-based analysis of the data. This includes entering formulas to calculate statistics and creating plots of the data. As students complete each phase of the analysis, reflection questions guide their understanding of what new information the analysis reveals. At activity end, students evaluate their original hypotheses and “put all of the pieces together.” The activity includes one carbon dioxide worksheet/data set and one ozone worksheet/data set; providing students and/or instructors with a content option. The activity also serves as a good standalone introduction to using Excel.

Combustion and Air Quality: Emissions Monitoring Activity

Published on August 2, 2016

As a class, students use a low-cost air quality monitor (a rentable “Pod”) to measure the emissions from different vehicles. By applying the knowledge about combustion chemistry that they gain during the pre-activity reading (or lecture presentation, alternatively), students predict how the emissions from various vehicles will differ in terms of pollutants (CO2, VOCs and NO2), and explain why. After data collection, students examine the time series plots as a class—a chance to interpret the results and compare them to their predictions. Short online videos and a current event article help to highlight the real-world necessity of understanding and improving vehicle emissions. Numerous student handouts are provided. The activity content may be presented independently of its unit and without using an air quality monitor by analyzing provided sample data.

An Introduction to Air Quality Research Lesson

Published on August 2, 2016

This lesson conveys core information about why air quality is important and how engineers tackle complex environmental problems—providing a foundation for the subsequent five activities. Students learn the basics about the structure of the Earth’s atmosphere, the types of pollutants that are present in the atmosphere (primary, secondary, gas-phase compounds, particulate matter), and the importance of air quality research. They are also introduced to some engineering concepts such as how air quality measurements are made and how control technologies work. A PowerPoint® presentation, teacher slide notes, blank vocabulary list, post-lecture quiz, homework handout, and a pre-unit STEM survey are provided. This lesson and its five associated activities are intended to prepare and guide students to take on their own research projects.

Linking Sources and Pollutants Activity

Published on August 2, 2016

Students use next-generation air quality monitors to measure gas-phase pollutants in the classroom. They apply the knowledge they gained during the associated lesson—an understanding of the connection between air pollutants and their possible sources. Student teams choose three potential pollutant sources and predict how the monitor’s sensors will respond. Then they evaluate whether or not their predictions were correct, and provide possible explanations for any inaccuracies. This activity serves as a simple introduction to the low-cost air quality monitoring technology that students use throughout the associated activities that follow. Three student handouts are provided.

Air Quality InQuiry (AQ-IQ) Curricular Unit

Published on August 1, 2016

Students engage in hands-on, true-to-life research experiences on air quality topics chosen for personal interest through a unit composed of one lesson and five associated activities. Using a project-based learning approach suitable for secondary science classrooms and low-cost air quality monitors, students gain the background and skills needed to conduct their own air quality research projects. The curriculum provides: 1) an introduction to air quality science, 2) data collection practice, 3) data analysis practice, 4) help planning and conducting a research project and 5) guidance in interpreting data and presenting research in professional poster format. The comprehensive curriculum requires no pre-requisite knowledge of air quality science or engineering. This curriculum takes advantage of low-cost, next-generation, open-source air quality monitors called Pods. These monitors were developed in a mechanical engineering lab at the University of Colorado Boulder and are used for academic research as well as education and outreach. The monitors are made available for use with this curriculum through AQ-IQ Kits that may be rented from the university by teachers. Alternatively, nearly the entire unit, including the student-directed projects, could also be completed without an air quality monitor. For example, students can design research projects that utilize existing air quality data instead of collecting their own, which is highly feasible since much data is publically available. In addition, other low-cost monitors could be used instead of the Pods. Also, the curriculum is intentionally flexible, so that the lesson and its activities can be used individually. See the Other section for details about the Pods and ideas for alternative equipment, usage without air quality monitors, and adjustments to individually teach the lesson and activities.

Soap vs. Shampoo Surfactant Lab Activity

Published on July 12, 2016

Students learn about the properties of solutions—such as ion interactions, surface tension and viscosity—as they make their own soap and shampoo and then compare their properties. Working as if they are chemical engineers, they explore and compare how the two surfactants behave in tap water, as well as classroom-prepared acidic water, hard water and seawater using four tests: a “shake test” (assessing the amount of bubbles produced), a surface tension test, a viscosity test, and a pH test. Then they coalesce their findings into a recommendation for how to engineer the best soap versus shampoo. The activity may be shortened by using purchased liquid soap and shampoo from which students proceed to conduct the four tests. A lab worksheet and post-quiz are provided.

Engineering Derby: Tool Ingenuity Activity

Published on July 7, 2016

Student teams are challenged to navigate a table tennis ball through a timed obstacle course using only the provided unconventional “tools.” Teams act as engineers by working through the steps of the engineering design process to complete the overall task with each group member responsible to accomplish one of the obstacle course challenges. Inspired by the engineers who helped the Apollo 13 astronauts through critical problems in space, students must be innovative with the provided supplies to use them as tools to move the ball through the obstacles as swiftly as possible. Groups are encouraged to communicate with each other to share vital information. The course and tool choices are easily customizable for varied age groups and/or difficulty levels. Pre/post assessment handouts, competition rules and judging rubric are provided.

Statistical Analysis of Methods to Repair Cracked Steel Activity

Published on June 29, 2016

Students apply pre-requisite statistics knowledge and concepts learned in an associated lesson to a real-world state-of-the-art research problem that asks them to quantitatively analyze the effectiveness of different cracked steel repair methods. As if they are civil engineers, students statistically analyze and compare 12 sets of experimental data from seven research centers around the world using measurements of central tendency, five-number summaries, box-and-whisker plots and bar graphs. The data consists of the results from carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer patched and unpatched cracked steel specimens tested under the same stress conditions. Based on their findings, students determine the most effective cracked steel repair method, create a report, and present their results, conclusions and recommended methods to the class as if they were presenting to the mayor and city council. This activity and its associated lesson are suitable for use during the last six weeks of the AP Statistics course; see the topics and timing note for details.

Repairing Cracked Steel Structures with Carbon Fiber Patches Lesson

Published on June 29, 2016

Over several days, students learn about composites, including carbon-fiber-reinforced polymers, and their applications in modern life. This prepares students to be able to put data from an associated statistical analysis activity into context as they conduct meticulous statistical analyses to evaluate/determine the effectiveness of carbon fiber patches to repair steel. This lesson and its associated activity are suitable for use during the last six weeks of an AP Statistics course; see the topics and timing note for details. A PowerPoint® presentation and post-quiz are provided.

Sound Visualization Stations Activity

Published on June 28, 2016

Students learn about sound and sound energy as they gather evidence that sound travels in waves. Teams work through five activity stations that provide different perspectives on how sound can be seen and felt. At one station, students observe oobleck (a shear-thickening fluid made of cornstarch and water) “dance” on a speaker as it interacts with sound waves (see Figure 1). At another station, the water or grain inside a petri dish placed on a speaker moves and make patterns, giving students a visual understanding of the wave properties of sound. At another station, students use objects of various materials and shapes (such as Styrofoam, paper, cardboard, foil) to amplify or distort the sound output of a homemade speaker (made from another TeachEngineering activity). At another station, students complete practice problems, drawing waves of varying amplitude and frequency. And at another station, they experiment with string (and guitar wire and stringed instruments, if available) to investigate how string tightness influences the plucked sound generated, and relate this sound to high/low frequency. A worksheet guides them through the five stations. Some or all of the stations may be included, depending on class size, resources and available instructors/aides, and this activity is ideal for an engineering family event.

What Makes an Eruption Explosive? Activity

Published on June 22, 2016

Students learn about the underlying factors that can contribute to Plinian eruptions (which eject large amounts of pumice, gas and volcanic ash, and can result in significant death and destruction in the surrounding environment), versus more gentle, effusive eruptions. Students explore two concepts related to the explosiveness of volcanic eruptions, viscosity and the rate of degassing, by modelling the concepts with the use of simple materials. They experiment with three fluids of varying viscosities, and explore the concept of degassing as it relates to eruptions through experimentation with carbonated beverage cans. Finally, students reflect on how the scientific concepts covered in the activity connect to useful engineering applications, such as community evacuation planning and implementation, and mapping of safe living zones near volcanoes. A PowerPoint® presentation and student worksheet are provided.

Acoustic Mirrors Activity

Published on June 22, 2016

Students play and record the “Mary Had a Little Lamb” song using musical instruments and analyze the intensity of the sound using free audio editing and recording software. Then they use hollow Styrofoam half-spheres as acoustic mirrors (devices that reflect and focus sound), determine the radius of curvature of the mirror and calculate its focal length. Students place a microphone at the acoustic mirror focal point, re-record their songs, and compare the sound intensity on plot spectrums generated from their recordings both with and without the acoustic mirrors. A worksheet and KWL chart are provided.

Rebuilding Soil with Biochar Activity

Published on May 18, 2016

Students learn about soil properties and the effect biochar—charcoal used as a soil amendment—has on three soil types, sand, loam and clay. They test the soils’ water retention capability before and after the addition of biochar. During the activity, student teams prepare soil mixtures, make observations (including microscopic examinations), compare soil properties, conduct water retention tests, take and record measurements, and analyze their observations and data. They see how the physical properties of soils—color, texture, and particle size—can be indicators of nutrient content and water retention capabilities to support plant growth. From their findings, they consider biochar’s potential benefits for environmental and agricultural applications, especially in conditions of drought and depleted soils. An activity lab sheet is provided to guide experimental data collection and analysis.