This weekend, my 8th grade son and I worked on a project for his science class he’s been planning for over a month. In March I asked him to record a short podcast we posted over on our family learning blog, “Draft Design for a Complex Machine to Generate Electricity from Water Power.” This was his initial design:

Complex Machine Design (original)

After actually building his planned design and working with different materials (largely scrap wood from our local Lowe’s hardware store and various bits of hardware pieced together with a drill and Gorilla Glue) we finally created a product which resembles this design, which he drew tonight.

Revised Design

Last night, he recorded a three minute video explaining his design and what we’d changed from the original plans.

Today, he actually tested the design and we recorded two videos I combined into one: A preliminary failure and a second successful test.

Overall science class this year for him has been (I think) largely a disappointment and a big frustration on several fronts. I won’t elaborate here in detail, but it’s been a case as a parent where I dearly wished there were more opportunities for both student and parental feedback to be integrated into the formal teacher evaluation process. Those frustrations aside, I want to observe that good things can come from projects and specifically engineering challenges which students are given. We spend far too LITTLE time in school and outside of class actually BUILDING THINGS we design and tweaking those models until “they work.” Alexander’s project isn’t likely to win any STEM awards and I’m not even sure what his grade on the project or in his class will be… but those things really don’t matter much. What matters is this science and engineering project gave him a chance to design and build something he imagined in his mind. It gave us a chance to work on building his design together. It was fun, and I think we both learned some new things as well as creating something we’re proud of and will remember for a long time.

He takes his project to school tomorrow to show his teacher and his class what he made and what he learned. “Success in learning,” however, has already been achieved and we don’t need a teacher’s grade or evaluation to know it. We DID, however, need a teacher to assign this project and thereby provide a catalyst for designing and building together. For that I am thankful both to his teacher and his wonderful school, Classen School of Advanced Studies in Oklahoma City Public Schools.

Long live science and engineering projects for students which require creativity, imagination, and really “making stuff!”

Compound Machine (unpainted)

Final Compound Machine (painted)

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On this day..

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  • Paul Shircliff

    As you said, far too little time is spent building and tweaking, in school & independently.  I love the students who build things on their own.  They just jump into things and get going.  My high school Physics classes are surprised how much time we spend in the machine shop or using hand tools..and I think we need to build/tweak more. I try to have Geometry class build things a couple of times. Students are really not comfortable with that idea.  

  • Paul Shircliff

    As you said, far too little time is spent building and tweaking, in school & independently.  I love the students who build things on their own.  They just jump into things and get going.  My high school Physics classes are surprised how much time we spend in the machine shop or using hand tools..and I think we need to build/tweak more. I try to have Geometry class build things a couple of times. Students are really not comfortable with that idea.  

  • Alexhunt3

    This is a really cool science project. I like that this something that a student made with only their thoughts it takes a lot of creativity to imagine things like this and bring them to life using science.

  • http://buistbunch.tumblr.com Michael Buist

    Thanks for sharing this. My students will use Alexander’s experience as a catalyst for their own engineering design challenges. This week they begin designing a subsystem for an assembly line (industrial engineering) and his drawings, audio note and two videos will prove to be very beneficial (I hope). We’d love to hear updates on Alexander’s design. Plus we’re planning on writing to him about his experiences. I hope you don’t mind. What would be the best way to send the notes to your son? You can contact me by email at [email protected] or follow me @buistbunch.

  • http://buistbunch.tumblr.com Michael Buist

    Thanks for sharing this. My students will use Alexander’s experience as a catalyst for their own engineering design challenges. This week they begin designing a subsystem for an assembly line (industrial engineering) and his drawings, audio note and two videos will prove to be very beneficial (I hope). We’d love to hear updates on Alexander’s design. Plus we’re planning on writing to him about his experiences. I hope you don’t mind. What would be the best way to send the notes to your son? You can contact me by email at [email protected] or follow me @buistbunch.

  • http://wfryer.wpengine.com Wesley Fryer

    Thanks so much for your comments, your plans sound great! I just emailed you. :-)

  • MarcelloMartin

    Great comment.  I’m actually trying to upload a general, but not allowing me too.  Any help?

  • MarcelloMartin

    I find most interesting aside from this obviously great idea, is his ability to incorporate the usage of technology within his experiment. For example, over a decade ago podcasts were possibly an imagination just waiting to happen. Unfortunately, students back then were left to verbal discussion and demonstration in regards to science projects. This very form of technology has spilled into classrooms across the country with an ever changing, growing industry of technology. Proven beneficial for educators and students alike as a new way of interactive learning, the results as seen with this students idea are successful.

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  • Jana Brown

    I found your blog while looking for examples of creative engineering in Oklahoma. I want examples to share with my students this summer at our Toy-Makers Workshop. Your son’s machine and the sharing of his work is so wonderful to find!  Please consider coming in to Lawton to share personally with our kids!! You and your son are a great inspiration!! 

  • Jana Brown

    I found your blog while looking for examples of creative engineering in Oklahoma. I want examples to share with my students this summer at our Toy-Makers Workshop. Your son’s machine and the sharing of his work is so wonderful to find!  Please consider coming in to Lawton to share personally with our kids!! You and your son are a great inspiration!! 

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