Novel Engineering in the After School Setting Part 1!

By Jeremy Knowlton

WMSI student engineers have two main jobs: make the world a better place and build understanding about ourselves and the things around us. Engineers start this process by identifying a client with a problem (usually a group of people) to design a process or tool for. WMSI has been busy these past couple of months helping students identify clients to design for and creating some really cool builds in the process - Bear scarers, food traps, plane signalers, and much more!

 Robotic arm design!

Robotic arm design!

BACKGROUND

This process started with a Tufts University project called Novel Engineering - a development effort funded in part by the NSF. Novel Engineering pulls students into stories, prompting the student to be the engineer and the characters in the book to be clients. As students read a book, they identify problems that the characters have. Next, these students collaborate with others and design real life prototype solutions for character problems. WMSI has taken this idea and adapted it for after school STEM programs all around the North Country!

 Taken from http://www.novelengineering.org/

Taken from http://www.novelengineering.org/

 This student designed a robot that rescues cats from trees

This student designed a robot that rescues cats from trees

BRAINSTORMING

WMSI has taken Novel Engineering and adapted it to fit in stand-alone 1.5 hour after school sessions. Students read summaries of books such as “A long walk to water” and “Hatchet”. Next, a WMSI instructor facilitates a full group brainstorm where we identify a list of problems that each character is facing in the book. From this list of problems, we create a list of solutions, ideas ranging from simple fixes to complicated “moonshot” ideas that might take 1.5 years instead of 1.5 hours to design! Any and all ideas are welcome in the brainstorm phase.

DESIGN AND TEST

After the brainstorm phase, an excited buzz of talking breaks out as partnered students choose solutions, make sketches, and identify needed materials. Each student in a pair takes on a design job, and character solutions are off to the races! Within 45 minutes, prototypes are being rigorously tested and re-tested by peers in the room. Soon, working prototypes are being shared with the class (above video - animal trap for Brian in “Hatchet”). claps, giggles, and high fives ensue. To add technology literacy to our programs, our Novel Engineering supplies include LEGO Ev3s as well as cardboard and other crafting materials.

 The beginnings of a prototype for an alarm system that scares bears away from dumpsters

The beginnings of a prototype for an alarm system that scares bears away from dumpsters

NOVELS AND ENGAGEMENT

So far, during Novel Engineering sessions we’ve explored “Hatchet”, “A Long Way From Water”, and “Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing”. Despite only reading 3-4 minute summaries of these books, students are immediately drawn into the story, significantly increasing engagement and buy-in. The post-reading brainstorms are rich with excitement, focus, and both detail oriented and big picture thinking. Discussions about emotional, physical, and process based problems have been triggered by these prompts, leading to a depth of conversation that is hard to achieve in the after school setting. WMSI cannot recommend the Novel Engineering process enough to teachers, parents, and administrators!

Keep an eye out for part II of this story: community-based problem solving in the after school setting!