Building a Better World

In an earlier post, I mentioned a project my Engineering classes did this year concerning stormproof housing. I have had a lot of positive feedback from other teachers at various workshops and presentations concerning this project. I think the positive response is due to the multi-disciplinary nature, high technical content and cultural imperatives of the project. It is probably more of a STEAM project than a STEM project and it empowers young people to see that their understanding of science, design and the needs of others can combine to make a difference.

The project is probably best situated in a Physics or Engineering class and can be tailored to span from 3 to 12 class hours by increasing the engineering and planning components. The challenge is to provide a structure that can float and withstand high winds. The “floods” happen in a plastic bin complete with some moving water and torrential downpours from a hand held nozzle. The “winds” are compressor-generated and move parallel with and perpendicular to walls, edges and roofs. Students are asked to design structures suitable for a country they have chosen based on their research. It needs to be something people would want to live in and it needs to have durability. They are asked to construct a scale model for testing, using available materials that they have judged representative of real-world materials. The project can have an appropriate technology (local materials and labor) or environmentally-friendly, sustainability approach. After considering instructor-generated constraints and student-generated criteria, they design their own scale model and develop their own testing procedure. Results are presented in a video highlighting the process and a “public awareness campaign” showcasing the solution.

The “Build a Better World” project is challenging. It covers concepts related to bouyancy, fluid flow (Archimedes’ and Bernoulli’s Principles), scaling, forces, material properties, experimental design, architecture, cultural traditions, and global housing issues. It requires a surprising amount of systems thinking and creativity. It truly puts a wide range of learning into the real world. Student feedback is overwhelming positive, but most impressive is the initiative and responsibility shown by each of them. Disaster and housing issues are real and they are global. This small amount of time spent focussing on an issue outside of the classroom can lead to a large impact in terms of a young person’s worldview. In the long run, that is what 21st century learning should be about.

For more information about the project, including detailed lesson plans, contact Ann Kaiser at akaiser@projectengin.com

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