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Middle School Students Get a Grip on Engineering Design

October 18, 2005

Siobhan Donati, an eighth grade science teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Laboratory School in Evanston, waited as her students found their seats and calmed down after recess. She started a new science unit that day: students were challenged to design a prosthetic arm for an amputee using materials readily available in the developing world. 

The science unit Donati implemented was developed by Northwestern faculty and students, and was integrated into the King Lab curriculum because it supports instruction in a variety of disciplines -- math, science, social studies and language arts -- while engaging students in an authentic task.

In order to effectively meet their challenge, students had to apply problem-solving and teamwork skills to the project in addition to subject matter.

“This program was exceptional in that it built self-esteem in students who had never taken pride in their work prior to this project," said Donati. "They became critical thinkers while strengthening their cooperative learning ability. Not only did the students talk about the program outside of the classroom, but they had other students, in other grades, also talking about the program.”

The prosthetic design challenge motivated students to create conceptual models, perform online research, draw diagrams, test ideas, communicate results, and weigh conflicting priorities as they collaborated to design and build their final prosthetic arm prototype.

James Finley, a Northwestern biomedical engineering graduate student and Get a Grip! volunteer said, “It was amazing to see how innovative the students were, considering the small amount of supplies we provided. The students have virtually no limitations on themselves at this age; some of the student designs were probably better than what we would've come up with as engineers.”

Finley has always been interested in programs that involve mentoring or teaching younger students, and he welcomed the opportunity to introduce engineering to students at King Lab and throughout Chicago.

The program, which began in 2001, is funded through the National Science Foundation and was developed by Suzanne Olds, professor of biomedical engineering, and David Kanter, assistant professor of education and social policy, in consultation with middle school science teachers, student volunteers, and engineers at the Center for International Rehabilitation.

“This program equips young people to think as global citizens," said Olds. "It informs students about the worldwide landmine situation, it increases their cultural awareness, and it generates respect for their disabled peers. It challenges young people to consider the needs of others and allows them to understand the difficulties some face -- all while assuming the role of an engineer.

According to Olds, a successful implementation requires a good teacher and a supportive administration, both of which were present at King Lab.

Donati said the program definitely made her students excited about science. 

“They had a lot of fun during Get a Grip!” she said. “The students learned to cooperatively work with their peers to accomplish a goal. They learned cost effectiveness and how the design of a product affects its usefulness. This program opened their eyes to more career options."

Topics: Research