Earth Matters: Kids learn inventiveness by inventing

  • Students at the Swift River Elementary School in Belchertown build Rube Goldberg machines and learn about engineering in the process. KATIE KOERTEN

For the Gazette
Friday, February 09, 2018

Recently I’ve been doing engineering and design workshops with third-graders. At the Hitchcock Center for the Environment, w e’re known for our educational programs about nature and sustainability. But all of us Hitchcock Center educators are also doing programs on engineering and design; it is curriculum that fosters confident, innovative thinking — crucial to tackling the problems facing the natural world.

When we moved to our new “living” building in the fall of 2016, we knew we wanted our building to be as much of an environmental educator as any of us were. We worked with the architects to design a building that would inspire our visitors’ curiosity about sustainable design. It’s impressive in an abstract way when we tell people our building is designed to collect all our water from the rain, but that becomes concrete as visitors enter our EcoTone and see the large colorful pipes coming down from the roof, into the first flush tanks, and finally out to the underground reservoir. We could have hidden all this equipment, but we wanted our visitors to interact with the special features of the building.

To make these concepts dynamic and accessible for kids, we’ve been leading engineering and design workshops for elementary schoolers. One of the ones we’ve done the most is our rainwater catchment challenge. The students are asked, “How can we build a roof for a building that will collect rainwater for collection, filtration and consumption?” Our architects faced this same question when designing our building, so we pass it on to the students. The challenge is to build a prototype made of a variety of materials such as poster board, aluminum foil, popsicle sticks and tape. In a designated amount of time the students must create a roof that collects as much water as possible.

Working in groups, students tackle their problem first by talking it out. It’s amazing to see the teams launch into excited discussion; the room erupts in a frenzy of ideas. You can tell students are hungry for the chance to be creative and begin building. They survey available materials and start making their choices. Upper-elementary students are told they have a certain amount of money to spend on materials, and therefore are working within the constraints of limited time, money and materials. We explain that real-world scientists and engineers are often faced with similar limitations. As students build, they run into problems: leaks, collapses, lack of money. They have to reassess, redesign and rebuild. When time is up, the teams demonstrate their designs for their classmates. The class watches as the instructor pours water on the prototype roofs, and students reflect on their work and offer critiques to their neighbors.

Another popular engineering and design program at Hitchcock is more whimsical: our Rube Goldberg machine workshops. You’ve probably seen Rube Goldberg machines in popular culture, be it in Wallace and Gromit movies, “Peewee’s Playhouse,” or perhaps the OK Go music video for the song “This Too Shall Pass.” Rube Goldberg machines are complicated contraptions with many moving parts that perform one simple task, such as zipping a zipper or flipping a light switch. They require an input of energy in the beginning, such as pushing a marble down a ramp, or knocking down the first domino in a chain of dominoes, and that sets off a chain reaction of events that ultimately leads to the completion of the simple task at the end.

In my workshops I present a task to the students, such as ringing a bell or watering a plant. Then I give them baskets of objects I found around the Hitchcock Center — like marbles, paper tubes and string — give them a time limit, and they get to work. Just like in our rainwater catchment workshops, these students are bursting with ideas. They run into frustration and dead ends, and we encourage them to tweak and try again, or think of a new plan. They take pride in their work, jumping and clapping when they’re successful. The flurry of excited thinking, designing, testing, redesigning and re-testing strikes a deep chord for me. Kids were made for these kinds of challenges. It’s rare to see a single child left out of the commotion; everyone is engaged, building, helping.

I often get asked, “What’s the connection to the environment?” The connection might not seem obvious, but it’s important. We know that to solve the problems facing our planet today, bold new thinking is required. New technologies, new inventions are needed to wean our society off fossil fuels and mitigate the effects of climate change. We want our students to think of themselves as problem solvers — inventors, designers, makers — from a young age. We want them to develop resilience and creativity, and the boldness to share it. Our engineering curriculum is equal parts social-emotional and physical science curriculum. Whether they are in the form of playful Rube Goldberg machines or modeled on our real-life “living building,” we hope these opportunities for engineering in the classroom empower students to think creatively and get practice sharing and trying out their ideas. Chances are, one day soon planet Earth will need them.

Katie Koerten is an environmental — and engineering! — educator at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 845 West St, Amherst, appears every other week. For more information go to www.hitchcockcenter.org, call 256-6006 or write to column@hitchcockcenter.org.