Technology is constantly around us, yet its ubiquity means that we can sometimes take it from granted. The innovations that we rely on in daily life did not just appear; they were engineered to provide us with exactly what we need and, in some cases, what we never realised we needed. We can inspire our students by introducing them to the idea that these feats of engineering were created by adults who were once curious children.
Exploring Steam (science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics)-based ideas from a theoretical position can be complicated and overwhelming, but taking an interactive approach means that students can be engaged in a way that makes the learning intuitive. They can solve problems and create new designs simply by playing and being given the freedom to explore their creativity without instruction. Here are some ideas for bringing hands-on learning into your classroom.
Play around with propulsion
Construction kits can offer a fantastic introduction to the world of engineering, allowing students to explore real-world mechanics while reinforcing understanding about forces, motion and stability. You could task pupils with making simple vehicles to race, or get them to investigate methods of propulsion that require no fuel, such as potential energy from springs and elastic bands.
There are a huge variety of kits available, but you can begin with a simple wooden frame, cardboard shell, dowel axles and plastic wheels, with an elastic band or balloon as the propulsion method. As students advance, you can introduce more elaborate systems, such as motors and gears. Once you have reached this level of engineering, you can enter the FIRST LEGO League competitions and race against teams across the country. And your students could even try designing construction vehicles of the future, as Volvo did with LEGO.
Building bridges is a creative way to explore structures. Students can begin by examining and recreating famous bridges from around the world, exploring the different approaches used in distributing the load. Then they can test how well different bridges work by putting them between two benches and subjecting them to increasingly heavy loads.
Once they have established the types of structure that work best under certain conditions, they can take the best elements of each and design a totally new bridge, testing against the previous models to see if they have been able to improve on existing structures. LEGO Education’s Wedo 2.0 has a great lesson on robust structures, which allows students to get to grips with the concepts of gravity, earthquakes and how a wider base is needed to create a more stability.
Get ready for robots
As the world becomes increasingly automated, it’s important for young people to understand how automation works (you can show them this video of a robot building LEGO, for starters). Jitterbugs are simple, inexpensive robots, which can be used to introduce the idea of motion from a motor, and can be fitted with different sensors to make the jitterbug to react to its environment. It could be light-dependent, for example, becoming inactive in the dark.
These are the very basics of robotics, and once students have mastered them, they could combine these experiments with the structures and vehicles they have already made, to create lightweight walking structures that react to their environment. They could even use inexpensive construction kits – like the ones available from LEGO – to build the frameworks and mechanisms to make their robots move.
Give your students a sense of purpose with a mission to design and engineer solutions to improve the lives of disadvantaged people, such as those without sight or hearing. For inspiration, you can show them this video about a 13-year-old in the US who built a braille printer from LEGO and started his own company.
Students will likely know an elderly person or someone with mobility issues, so they can explore ways of dealing with those challenges. They could start by redesigning utensils for people with limited grip or strength and extend to designing prosthetic limbs, like David Aguilar, who created a prosthetic arm for himself from LEGO.
Children have curious and inquisitive minds and as they are doodling and modelling with paper, card, tissue and straws, they are already taking their first steps into the world of practical problem-solving by designing and making. Through playing, they are learning the basics of design and construction and how to bring the ideas in their minds to life.
We can stoke that curiosity by introducing interesting and challenging real-world problems for them to solve. Exploring through play can help pupils to understand what engineering is and what engineers do. As the Year of Engineering comes to a close, it’s the ideal time to introduce your students to the world of possibilities that await them and their creative ideas.
Paul Woodward is the head of creative arts at a large independent school in the North of England. He has taught and led D&T in a variety of schools as well as working as a designer, examiner, moderator, resource author and D&T consultant