By Beth Donze, Kids’ Clarion
Last summer, Gina Egan realized she really missed not having a homeroom period – that golden time during the school day in which teachers like herself could interact more casually with their students while still keeping the learning going.
To fill the void, Egan, St. Ann’s computer teacher, launched an afterschool “STEM club” last September, inviting 23 fifth, sixth and seventh graders to tackle some fun, hands-on engineering challenges on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons.
Recently, club members were fine-tuning their end-of-the-year project: a choice of building either a miniature Ferris wheel or a “DaVinci Bridge,” the latter an arched, self-supporting bridge designed by Leonardo DaVinci for fast assembly and disassembly during times of war.
“I (initially) gave them 14 popsicle sticks, and they had to build the bridge with no other instructions,” Egan said. “They had to figure out how Leonardo came up with a bridge that was completely self-supportive, with no (fastening hardware) to hold it together.”
Initially, Egan didn’t show them any photos of the ingenious bridge, wanting them to puzzle it out for themselves. She eventually gave them the option to look up the design on the computer. DaVinci used the opposing forces of stacked, notched timbers to hold his bridge together.
“Some Googled (DaVinci bridges), some didn’t,” said Egan, who later gave her young engineers more popsicle sticks so they could construct even longer bridges. More length caused them to arch higher above the ground.
“We talked about why that was happening,” Egan said. “That’s how we learn. I want them to learn from their mistakes and build from that.”
Those who chose to make a Ferris wheel had the advantage of knowing what one looked like. The students soon realized the wheel’s main framework was composed of six equilateral triangles that converged at a central axle.
Last fall, club members built catapults using spoons, rubber bands and popsicle sticks and held a contest to see which design could launch a small object the farthest.
In another challenge, Egan gave her students 100 index cards, instructing them to build the highest tower that could support a small stuffed monkey.
Club members also designed a critter-proof covering for St. Ann’s “Coastal Roots” garden, which produces erosion-slowing plants and trees for the state’s marshlands.
“We had a problem with the squirrels eating the seeds last year – we were losing our crop,” Egan said, noting that as club moderator, she is always reminding her students to adhere to the engineering process of planning, researching, experimenting and redoing.
“That can be a challenge, because a lot of times they don’t want to plan; they wanted to take (the materials) and build something right away,” Egan said.
“They are so creative,” she added. “I like how they start communicating as a team and bouncing ideas off each other!”