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Voices from the Classroom

Voices from the Classroom allows undergraduate and graduate engineering students to relate their first-hand experiences working in K-12 engineering outreach.

“The Joy of Learning” by Luke Simmons

I am very fortunate, for I have had several truly positive people to look up to in my life. To their credit, I attribute much of my success to these mentors. However, since September 2004, the shoe has been on the other foot. For the first time ever, I am carrying a new label with me. If you check the inside collar of my button-up shirts, you will find the words “50% Role Model” printed in place of the cotton equivalent. Even though I am now respectfully known by my students as “Mr. Luke, The Teacher,” I’d really prefer to be called “Mr. Luke, The Learner.”

It’s true: the sixth grade students at Angevine Middle School in Lafayette, CO, have taught me a thing or two in the past seven months. No, they were not able to help me calculate the required propellant mass to reach the International Space Station for one of my graduate classes; they have shown me something far more profound: the joy of learning. To see their eyes widen as they split water into its elemental gases with nothing more than a lead pencil and a battery was very rewarding. “Look! We see bubbles,” they said with obvious astonishment. Then, they moved on to figuring out why the bubbles on one pencil tip were larger and more abundant than on the other. Their continual enthusiasm for learning is catching.

On another day, in a separate warm-up demonstration, I cleverly (and carefully!) dropped a strip of magnesium into hydrochloric acid. Their oohs and ahs couldn’t help but make me smile. Much to my delight, they correctly explained how the chemical reaction relates to the law of conservation of mass and subsequently classified it as exothermic. One student, who was having a hard time seeing the hydrogen gas escaping from the beaker, asked, “What would happen if you put food coloring in the acid? Would the gas become that color?” I was nearly floored by the question, and I could not wait to try it. As an engineer, I became excited with the anticipation of trying this new experiment with the students. I had my own prediction but held off on sharing it, of course, so that the students could experience it for themselves. I could tell that the class was stirring in anticipation. Yes, this is what science and engineering are all about.

These students have reminded me what it is like to have the passion for learning. I’m lucky enough to relive the experience again through their eyes. Why do some of us lose our enthusiasm and excitement to be educated? Are we too stressed out from life’s daily grind? Do we need to see dollar signs before we feel the oohs and ahs? I take a refreshing breath after sixth grade science each week and ponder these questions. Why? Please, call me Mr. Luke, The Learner.

By Natalie Mach, GK-12 Fellow

University of Colorado at Boulder

“Oh my GOD!” “Really?” and “No Way!” These are the phrases that I live for as a GK-12 Fellow. They are code speak in middle school for: “I am thinking” or “I understand what you are saying.” I no longer listen for — or even expect to hear — such affirmative words from middle school students; instead, I look past their “deer caught in headlights” stares, realizing that the blank looks are simply a standard defense mechanism in their social world. But then again, I have it easier than their full-time educators because I am the “fun engineering teacher” from the University of Colorado at Boulder’s TEAMS (Teaching Engineering to Advance Math and Science) Program — bringing in bags full of marshmallows and rainbow pipe cleaners, masking tape, straws and balls of clay and oftentimes leaving a unique odor of vinegar or some other substance behind me. It is said that smell is the most powerful memory trigger, so I’m hopeful that whenever Mr. Fernandez’ students smell vinegar, they will remember our engineering projects and recall how mass can neither be created nor destroyed.

When I teach, I break the students into small groups, intentionally mixing up the usual partners — in spite of their superficial groans and shrugs. In these small groups, we design, build, experiment and melt away some of the pre-teen pretenses about school, and I realize that this age group really is curious and wants to learn. As team design discussions heat up and the noise level in the classroom increases, I understand how valid the argument is for smaller student teacher ratios. So much so that I must acknowledge my partner teachers’ effective facilitation of an environment where there can be more than one educator in a classroom, allowing me to be a part of these students’ lives and help increase the personal attention that each student receives. After a whirlwind of colored papers, markers, scissors, rulers and calculators are shuffled to their respective bins and drawers, I prepare to leave the school and find myself reflecting on my day: while I entered the classroom with an ego recently crushed by a 100 lb differential equation in my Day Lighting class, I am positively uplifted by the students’ pleas for me to stay and teach some more. I would like to think they enjoyed my engineering lesson and appreciate being able to visualize the concepts previously discussed only in text books, but maybe it is really only because of Mr. Fernandez’ final instruction of the day: “It’s time to start your two-column notes.” Am I making a difference? I think so.

Microeconomics in the 7th- 8th grade?

By Jeff Lyng

GK-12 Fellow
University of Colorado at Boulder

Nearly everything costs money. Every day I pay to ride the bus, pay to park my car (if I drive to work), pay for a cup of coffee, and pay to print my homework assignments. After years of trying to prove otherwise, I’ve come to accept the simple fact that there truly is no such thing as a free lunch. As an engineering graduate student and environmentalist, I have tried to tailor my lifestyle to be as resource conscious as possible.

I realize that the understanding of monetary value vs. want vs. need is an evolving, natural progression that students go through, usually sometime in high school (perhaps as they begin to pay for their own gasoline upon receiving their driver’s license or eat lunch out with friends). Last fall, when I began teaching alongside Nathan Bala in his Applied Technology class, I observed a shocking amount of reckless waste on the part of the students.

For example, I once handed a sheet of poster board, to a student to begin construction of his Air Racer project after a week of intense schematic design and revisions. Although I should not have been surprised, I was when the same student complained not more than five minutes later that he had run out of poster board and needed another sheet. Upon closer inspection, I saw that he had cut a perfect circle out of the center of the poster board rendering the remainder of it virtually useless for the balance of his Air Racer chassis. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there: glue sticks are left to ooze through hot glue guns that remain plugged in, but are not being used; tools and other allegedly replaceable hardware is abused; and paper is consumed at an alarming rate, just to name a few sources of irresponsible waste.

Teacher Nathan Bala has developed a brilliant solution to this ubiquitous problem: everything has a price! Now, as in the real world, all project supplies and materials in Bala’s technology classes costs money — even paper. The laborious task of printing, laminating and cutting up hundreds of dollars worth of fake money has paid back in spades.

It works like this: at the beginning of the term, students are divided up into groups of 3-4. These are the groups in which students will work with for the duration of a given project — through the initial brainstorm, schematic design, prototype development, testing and finally, construction (e.g., Air Racers, Maglev trains, Rube Goldberg machines). Initially, each group is given $250 of seed money. Students try diligently to make as much money as possible for their group and to spend as little as possible.

There are several ways that students can earn additional money for their projects: answer questions in class, cleanup after another group, or become a class consultant. A consultant is someone that Nathan or I have determined is particularly adept at a certain task and who is authorized to assist other students in exchange for a predetermined fee. In turn, if groups feel that the consultant did not deliver, groups who hire a consultant have the right to file a mock lawsuit to recover as much as 100% of the consultant’s fee.

There are two ways that groups can spend money. First, students may spend in the traditional sense: if a group requires 10 craft sticks, for example, to complete their project, then I collect $20 from the team fund (yes, the going rate for wooden craft sticks really is $2/each). All items have a fixed fee associated with them. The second way in which groups spend money is by engaging in classroom rule infractions. At the beginning of the term, Mr. Bala goes over the classroom expectations with his students and the monetary cost that is incurred for committing a violation against those expectations. For example, the unsafe use of a utility knife will cost a student (and therefore, their group) a $100 fine. The peer-pressure that exists among groups to abide by the classroom rules prevents most students from making the same mistake twice.

Throughout their projects, students quickly learn that the more money their group has accrued assures a greater probability for project success. And, as is true in actual engineering, design constraints are very real — including financial limitations. In essence, a greater bank account means more flexibility in being able to try new project approaches.

Since the implementation of class microeconomics, Nathan Bala’s students have taken a 180 degree turn in the way in which they respect and utilize the resources given to them. They have truly learned the value of a dollar — a skill I’m confident they will carry with them well into adulthood.

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