Our school is working toward becoming an Academy of Engineering site, for which reason four of us from that academy attended the National Academy Foundation (NAF) Conference. The best session at the NAF conference that I attended was one on integrated interdisciplinary units that bring together both the PLTW Principles of Engineering (POE) course and other core academic subjects, put on by Pier Sun Ho of ConnectEd.
Half of what intrigued me was how to connect the POE curriculum to other subjects. For example, at the time the POE teacher was teaching about ballistic motion, the algebra or geometry teacher could be teaching about quadratics or trigonometry; the history teacher could be discussing World War II bombing of London and Dresden; the English teacher could be teaching argumentative skills needed in a debate; and the physics teacher could be teaching about trajectories. Not that all these subjects line up the same year in Maryland, but just the idea of weaving together so tight a connection among subjects was exciting! The ConnectEd folks even have provided a curriculum that tie these subjects together, available to all NAF schools via the password-protected myNAF website.
The other half of what made that session the most interesting is that we (teachers, guidance counselors, administrators, and business partners alike) got to work as a team to build catapults, then compete against each other in a game of “You Sunk My Battleship.”
Details are as follows: Each team was given 15 notched popsicle (craft) sticks, glue, masking tape, 2 binder clips, 4 rubber bands, and a protractor, along with a 2″ square of cardboard with which to build a cup to hold the ping-pong ball. Then, after 20 minutes of design/building time, teams competed against each other by mounting their catapults in a fixed position to 3 ft by 1ft pieces of cardboard (their ‘ships’). The teams lined their ships up along the carpet (or tiled floor), then proceeded to do battle. On each turn, a team could move three spaces in one direction, rotate 90 degrees, and/or fire the catapult, in any order.
Besides learning how to better collaborate with other subject teachers while I teach the POE course, I also realized during this session that even adults enjoy having fun and hands-on activities too! Similarly, one of the best parts of a conference I attended over a year ago in Atlanta was when teams of us got to build a toothpick-and-jelly-bean tower, with the goal of using the fewest toothpicks to successfully build a tower of four stories that could support the weight of a baseball for at least thirty seconds. Related to this idea, to help improve my classes I have worked at including more short mini-projects in POE, to complement and motivate the PLTW curriculum, as well as helping run the annual STEM Competitions.
But perhaps we could use this idea for adults too? Adults in the education field have enjoyed the toothpick tower and catapult at professional development sessions. In the past years, we in the engineering department have held a parent/family orientation session to let families know what the PLTW engineering pathway is, and what their child will be involved in over the nest several years. Perhaps we can expand that orientation session to include a hands-on engineering mini-project, so that families can experience a bit of the engineering design process that their kids learn about. If they are like us, they will not only learn about the engineering pathway but also have a lot of fun!