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Apr. 14, 2011

Teacher's Review - Rube Goldberg Machines and Energy Transfer

by Christopher Hong

Hi everyone, I’m Chris and I am one of the bloggers for the Engineers as Teachers blog. Engineers as Teachers (EasT) is a program invented by Tara Chklovski, founder of the science and engineering education non-profit Iridescent. The goal of EasT is to give engineering students an opportunity to give back to the community by teaching underserved elementary and middle school students about engineering through fun experiments that range from the physics of amusement parks to engineering in the heart. These lessons are taught in “Family Science Night” format, usually in the evenings so children and their parents can learn about engineering together.

I started participating in EasT in September 2010 mainly because one of my childhood aspirations is teaching. Last fall, my colleague, Hwa Young Jin, and I taught lessons about the physics of amusement parks to 3rd to 5th graders at two different schools, P.S.102 in East Harlem and P.S.12 in Crown Heights. It was tough for me in the beginning because I did not have any teaching experience. I definitely did not expect to be so overwhelmed with work last semester (even though I was taking 22.5 credits.) This semester, I am in the progress of teaching four lessons at the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) to first graders and their families.

This time, my unit is called Harnessing the Elements. I will be teaching students and families about energy and how we can “harness the elements” for our use. Students will learn about wind, water, and solar energy. In the first lesson, students and families built a Rube Goldberg machine to learn about energy and energy transfer.

I started the lesson with a video of the Rube Goldberg machine created by OK GO and the kids loved it.

I felt that the energy and kinetic energy explanation was clear and the experiment was good as well (although the students could have used more time, because creating a Rube Goldberg machine is not so easy.) There was one small glitch in my experiment demonstration. The Rube Goldberg machine that I built did not work the first time, so I “redesigned” it in front of everyone, and, guess what, it failed a second time! I “redesigned” it one more time and luckily it worked. Although this moment could have been a disaster, it was ultimately useful to show students and families that engineers continually redesign solutions to problems.

My explanation of potential energy and energy transfer did not go so well because these two concepts are quite abstract. David Wells (of NYSCI) helped out a lot with this explanation and he had the students bend a stick to create “potential energy.” He explained how when the stick was released, it became “kinetic energy,” and this was an energy transfer. This worked well, but I’m not so sure how students will apply potential energy and energy transfer outside of the classroom. A better explanation of potential energy and energy transfer is needed to get first graders to fully understand it. If I was teaching older students, I feel that they would grasp this concept more easily -- especially since I discussed the energy required to lift a pencil versus that required to lift a chair. Also, the explanation of the catapult energy transfers would probably go better with older kids since first graders just “played” with the catapults -- although “playing” is the first step of learning. I should have asked the first graders: “Why did the block fly in the air when you hit the other end of the catapult?” This may have helped their understanding.

This experience of teaching first graders is definitely unique. When they first entered the room, they were extremely hyper and starting running around the room. I definitely did not expect such a robust crowd. I warned one of the kids to be careful around the wires, but they were disappointed when they though I meant “no running.” I didn’t want to seem like an “uncool” teacher to them so I just moved the wires out of their way.

The whole lesson ended with some simple exit reflection questions and it was nice seeing parents helping the students with the questions. One thing that surprised me in the end was how easily the first graders sat down and did their exit questions to earn their stickers. It seems that they are easily motivated to do work.

At the end of the lesson, there was this one student, Logan, who created a toy gun out of the supplies for the Rube Goldberg machines. That was amazing! Erika (of Iridescent) suggested that he attach a catapult to his gun -- and he did that. It just shows that-- given the materials -- first graders can be as creative as older engineers; they just need to be given the opportunity to explore and play with these advanced concepts.

I would have to say that my favorite part of that whole lesson was the gratitude that I received from everyone in the room that day. When I left, some families waved to me and thanked me even more. I’m glad that I can show them that engineering can be fun for people of all ages.

Teaching Tip:
I prepared a scavenger hunt for the students (a worksheet with pictures and letters that would reveal a secret message if they paid attention during the lesson.) It worked fantastically as well. All of the students loved this worksheet and paid attention to my lesson. If any of their minds drifted, I could get their attention back with the next clue.

The complete lesson plan is online at Harnessing the Elements: Energy Transfer.
__________
Christopher Hong is a sophomore electrical engineering student at The Cooper Union.

Iridescent, a science & engineering education nonprofit, uses science, engineering and technology to develop persistent curiosity and to show that knowledge is empowering. Through their Engineers as Teachers program, Iridescent trains undergraduate, graduate and professional engineers and scientists to develop engaging, hands-on, design-based science courses for underserved children and their families, and to communicate cutting-edge science concepts to large, diverse, public audiences.
About Christopher Hong

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