A 10-year-old girl showed up a couple of our engineers in a classroom activity. Her story shows why creativity is to problem-solving as engagement is to STEM ed.
Ready? One. Two. Three. SMACK.
A 10-inch wooden toy truck flies down a wooden ramp, ramming into a duct-taped soda straw and cardboard barrier. Atop the truck, a boxy sensor measures the force of impact. As it crashes, a toothpick on the barrier's side cracks and bends upward. The front cardboard face crumples like a highway guardrail.
The whole set-up, rigged up in a Dillman Hall conference room, is round two in a lighthearted competition. At the far end of the table—opposite a young student with a headband in her hair—an undergraduate student calls out the measurement.
"Nice work, Daisy! I think you bested us again."
Daisy Isaksson is a fifth-grade student at Dollar Bay Elementary. A couple weeks ago, she surprised one of Michigan Tech's engineers from the Center for Technology & Training by beating the results of several PhDs, professional engineers and engineering students in a classroom activity called "Stop That Truck!"
Engineering 101: Games and Competition
The object of the activity is to make the best barrier that stops a toy truck. Even though "Stop That Truck!" is a sanctioned informal STEM ed activity that teaches design and construction skills as well as physics, it does feel like a game.
The conference table is littered with the clipped ends of straws, stray toothpicks, and lots and lots of duct tape. The materials are simple, but not free. There's a $30 budget that participants have to fall under; popsicles sticks at $3 each are, honestly, a little pricey.
The activity was designed by Drew Roberts, a civil engineering senior, under a Transportation and Civil Engineering (TRAC) Program module updated by civil engineer Chris Gilbertson from the Center for Technology & Training under a Michigan Department of Transportation grant. TRAC is a national outreach program that encourages the teaching of STEM (with a civil engineering flavor) to students at a young age by providing well-designed learning modules to high school and middle school teachers.
The ultimate goal, Roberts says, is to teach students about impulse and momentum by solving a problem with their hands. Gilbertson modified the full activity for Family Science Night at the Dollar Bay Elementary School, which Daisy attended. The event is part of an ongoing collaboration to provide quality STEM programming for underserved communities organized by BHK Child Development and the Western Upper Peninsula Center for Science, Mathematics and Environmental Education. It truly takes a village to raise support that helps get meals and science on the table for rural kids.
"I would have fallen asleep if we had done this like we do in school," Daisy says. "But actually building something, that was fun."
She adds that the best part is competition. From the beginning, Daisy set out to win.
"Daisy stood out from the other kids in her seriousness and sincerity. After the competition, she asked me to take a photo of her holding her barrier and share her design back at the office…she felt like she was part of our team and a contributor to the greater good."
Engineering 102: Momentum and Impulse
To get to victory, Daisy had to learn about two basic principles in engineering.
Now, let's be honest. Engineers get a bad rap. Their stereotypes—besides being all awkward white guys with pocket protectors—zero in on extreme precision. Unfortunately, many people think that engineers (sans specialization, of course) hunch over desks all day drawing lines on old-fashioned blueprints. In a word—BORING.
So, Gilbertson, throwing stereotype to the wind, made sure his explanation of momentum and impulse would be both entertaining and memorable. He first asked all the students to clap their hands as hard as they could; then he asked them to press their hands together as hard as they could. What he wanted them to understand is that an object in motion will have a greater impulse, a greater change in momentum, when it stops suddenly. Hence the wham/ouch feeling post-clapping.
In terms of the toy truck and barrier, everyone was competing to have the lowest impact force. The barrier should soften the blow to the truck as it rolls down the ramp and hits the backstop with the sensor. Variations in force, measured in newtons (N), relate to the barrier's effectiveness.
Engineering 103: Design
Daisy's lowest score was 12.4 N on Family Science Night in Dollar Bay. Her fellow students averaged in the low 30s. The lowest score in the Center for Technology & Training office was mid-20s. Gilbertson invited Daisy to the Michigan Tech campus for a rematch.
The great part of Daisy's visit, he says, is that the whole office upped their game. The new office record is 17.64 N. Gilbertson, who improved his score by nearly 10 N, borrowed elements from Daisy's design.
The key, as summarized in the activity sheet, is considering whether a stronger barrier is better: "It depends on how quickly it stops the vehicle. A barrier designed to sequentially fail (break) over time can be beneficial because it can reduce the impact on the vehicle by slowing it down over time."
Daisy used a swath of taped straws, trimmed down to the length of the toy car axle, to reduce the vehicle's speed before impact with the second piece of her barrier. The part Gilbertson borrowed, the second component, was a toothpick and cardboard design that crushed sequentially with impact to the front of the barrier and minimized energy transfer into the backstop.
Others in the group tested different design ideas, drawing inspiration from springs, bubble wrap, crumple zones from automobiles and actual crash barriers used on today’s roads. The interesting part of the challenge is the materials used in the competition strongly influence what will be a successful design. Designs that tried to mimic modern crash barriers didn’t do as well due to the limitations of the materials and construction techniques. Out-of-the-box designs like Daisy’s made the most out of the materials.
"Engineering is about compromise and doing the best you can with the resources at hand."
Engineering 104: Get Creative
Kids are naturally curious and creative—and so are the most successful engineers. Less than imposing rules, cultivating an engineer's mindset is about equipping young minds with tools. Kids like Daisy start out tinkering with challenges and puzzles; they eventually understand the science behind the problems and learn to engineer.
"And that process simply can't be boring or students won't engage," says Roberts, recalling that competition and a good mentor in his high school math courses helped make that shift for him.
Daisy's mom, Page, says her daughter already thinks like an engineer and there is actually a lot of chaos and productivity that accompanies her creativity.
"Yes, the art table," says Brian, Daisy's dad. "You know, it used to drive me nuts. After seeing this today, I'll never question it again."
Creativity spurs investment that spurs hard work that spurs dedication. What we learn from the humble cardboard of "Stop That Truck!" is that creativity is the fountain of youth for new ideas. And some ideas we hope stick around.
"Yeah, I think I do want to be a civil engineer someday."
Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.