Fourth Grade Engineering Project Switches Gears
Engineering is problem solving. The Duke School community collectively engineered many solutions so that students could attend school both on campus and virtually throughout the 2020-21 school year. Modifications happened on a daily, if not hourly, basis.
Fourth grade, for example, re-engineered their engineering project to make it more accessible to all their students. In past years, students worked with partners or small groups to design and construct programmable robotic machines using LEGO® Mindstorms kits. This year, COVID-19 safety protocols restricted sharing these materials among groups of students.
“At the beginning of the year, we found out we weren’t going to be able to share [these particular] LEGO sets and we knew for sure that we didn’t have enough kits for everyone to be able to do it—at least not at the same time,” said fourth-grade teacher Beth Harris.
Those limited resources combined with the rollout of new LEGO Mindstorms software led the fourth-grade teachers to look for an alternative approach.
“In the past, we had done some things—little challenges that didn’t involve LEGO sets. And we thought, well, maybe we can just do the whole thing without them,” said Beth.
Essentially, the only change was in the materials.
“We used the whole design process—all of that was the same,” said Beth. “But we just didn’t use LEGO (Mindstorms) or computers for it.”
Each student began by taking an engineering personality test as well as writing about a past experience where they engineered a solution to a problem.
In the first construction challenge, each student devised a tool for moving a ball from the floor to a table. This was followed by an exercise in materials engineering, where they dissected an unused disposable diaper and repurposed the materials to create something else.
Building a bridge with an 11-inch minimum span that could pass three stability tests was the next challenge. When compared to the LEGO bridges of previous years, the results were surprising.
“Our bridges were super sturdy,” said teacher Geoff Berry. “In the typical tests we did—which are a wind test, an earthquake test and a weight test—we had like a 90 percent pass rate, which never happens. That was interesting.”
A new challenge this year proved to be more difficult than expected. The task was to build a cardboard shelter for a toy pet that had three sides, a floor, and a roof with cuts in the cardboard and one foot of duct tape holding it all together. As student frustrations grew, the teachers found themselves problem solving as well—eventually allowing students to use more tape and, in some cases, even staples.
“When it was over, we were like, ‘OK, we really have to revamp that because it was so hard,’” said Geoff. “The kids said in the end, ‘Don’t ever ask anybody to do that again, please!’”
For their final projects, students looked around for real problems that needed solving. Maintenance supervisor Sean Wilmer provided some inspiration by taking the students on a tour and pointing out some problem areas around campus. Bridged Distance Learning (BDL) students searched their homes and neighborhoods and asked grownups for help as well.
“We wanted them to have a real problem that impacted them,” said teacher Tori Morton.
Solving drainage issues and cleaning up wildlife droppings on playing fields inspired several invention prototypes. Other inventions included a LEGO piece organizer, a pet umbrella, a gravity-assisted cereal dispenser, and a magnetic levitating hover scooter.
LEGO bricks, motors and sensors were replaced with cardboard, paper tubes, popsicle sticks, wooden dowels, string, rubber bands and tape. If someone needed more specialized materials, they were purchased by the teachers or even fabricated in the Duke School shop by Sean.
Though much of the work was done individually, the teachers continued to emphasize and encourage collaboration with other students. Students completed surveys and offered feedback and suggestions to their classmates throughout the project.
The project culmination featured many digital elements—as has become the norm during the pandemic. Students used iMovie, Google, and Padlet to create videos and share photos and journal entries with parents.
“Students kept a running journal and digital video portfolio of all of their work, chronicling all the phases and all the work that they did along the way,” said Beth. “And then we had them set up the share the week of the culmination. It obviously wasn’t the same, but it had a little bit of the same feel of getting to see the process and showcase what they did and the opportunity to see other kids’ work as well.”
Some students even created “Shark Tank”–style marketing videos to generate interest in their inventions.
Although LEGO Mindstorms will continue to be a mainstay of the fourth-grade engineering project, the 2020-21 adaptation had its merits.
“Overall, I feel like LEGO (Mindstorms) are very exciting and cool, but also limiting in a way,” said Tori. “Their projects this past year were almost a little more ‘out of the box’ because they were just freer with what they could use to build. I felt like that pushed their imaginations a bit more.”
Third Graders Design Solutions to Real World Problems
While fourth graders at Duke School navigated building with various materials due to safety protocols’ impact on LEGO® Mindstorms kits usage, the re-engineering of third grade LEGO inquiries created new space for innovative and imaginative solutions.
“Usually we have them in partners and it’s a communication exercise,” third grade teacher Heather Greene said. However, to adapt to COVID-19 protocols, logistics had to be re-worked while still maintaining key aspects of the activities.
At the beginning of each design challenge, the students were presented with scenarios to solve or construction prompts to respond to, all grounded in potential real-life situations: What would you build to move a large object into a house? How about when constructing a safe and entertaining space for a baby to sit in while dinner is being made?
Third graders used five steps of design thinking as a framework for navigating solution building: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.
After hearing each challenge prompt, students had the opportunity to interview their teachers to learn more about their audience and what matters most to them.
In response to the prompt of making something to occupy a baby while dinner is prepared, students asked what the baby likes to do and whether or not the baby can crawl to see how high the structure should be. Upon hearing that the baby likes to make loud noises, one student asked if Heather minded the sounds or if she prefers quiet while cooking.
Following this initial information gathering session, third graders then synthesized this information to understand and define what components needed to be included in each design. From here, each designer brainstormed imaginative solutions and built LEGO prototypes to represent their ideas.
On pitch day, Heather said “they recorded a video on their iPad documenting what they had done and how it was safe and entertaining because that was the main objective.” Teachers and students alike provided feedback on what worked and what didn’t go as planned to provide guidance for a second round of prototyping. Students on campus and those participating in Bridged Distance Learning were able to bridge safety protocol distance by watching each other’s videos. Through this communication step, one student discovered the possibility of adding a classical music speaker to help calm the baby.
Heather noted that each challenged informed the next: “from the first one, they learned that they need to ask lots of questions, or more focused questions in the empathize stage so that they have all the information that they need” to help solve the problems. By grounding each challenge in real-world scenarios, third graders practiced and strengthened solution finding skills that can translate well to environments outside of LEGO building.