One day when I was in junior high, I asked my dad for algebra homework help. After he finished helping me, I felt like I had a really good understanding of the material and I was pretty excited…or at least I was as excited as a teenager doing math homework could possibly be. He then said “you know, what you just did is basically the fundamentals of calculus.” Me…doing calculus? Really? But calculus is hard, and I know this because it even sounds hard.
I was never afraid of math and in fact, I really, REALLY liked math growing up. For some reason though, when someone substituted the words “calculus” or “trigonometry” for math, math suddenly turned from something I knew, liked, and was familiar with to something abstract and terrifying.
Back on that day in junior high after being told I basically did calculus through my simple algebra assignment, in my mind calculus started to turn from “calculus” to just “math.” The idea that you could learn about something abstract by doing something simple is something I tried to incorporate into my “I’m an Engineer” lesson on Friday.
The main part of the lesson was an activity to introduce engineering to the students before I told them what engineering is. I handed each student a pad of post-it notes and a balloon and I instructed the students to come up with as many ideas as they could about what they could make or create with this balloon, and each idea was to be written on a post-it and placed on the table of their group. The first couple of classes seemed to struggle with this task. I was receiving a lot of ideas like “you can use it for parties or decorations,” and I really wanted them to think beyond the scope of a balloon. I wanted them to think like MacGyver, who could take some duct tape and a toothpick and build you a shopping mall. What did MacGyver have that these kids don’t have? Ah hah! For the next classes, I decided to give them a scenario: “If you were on a deserted island and all you found on this island was a balloon, what would you do with this balloon to help you?” I then received some awesome ideas (e.g. you can carry water in it, you could tie things together with it, you could use it as a flotation device, you could fill it with lightning bugs and use it as a flashlight)! I then demonstrated to them how you can make a refrigerator with a balloon. Man, they certainly didn’t believe me at first, but I wish you could have seen their eyes when they felt just how cold you could make a balloon with only simple manipulation.
I then told them that throughout this activity they were all engineers because engineers are people who design, create, and build things to help solve practical problems in the world. I showed some examples of some cool engineering feats and then I asked the students to explain to me how they thought engineering was involved in a list of everyday things (e.g. wake up, eat breakfast, transport to school) that we wrote down at the beginning of the lesson and this seemed easy for them, even though few students at the beginning thought engineering impacted everything they did each day.
The last half or so of the lesson was extremely important to me:
Me: “Do you guys think engineering can be involved in science?”
Almost the entire classroom: “Noooooo.”
I showed the students a picture to help demonstrate how engineering could help us learn more about science and then I also wanted to explain how science was involved in engineering, which led to my field: Tissue Engineering. I told them the basics of what tissue engineering is and I then asked the students a series of questions that ultimately led them to telling me that science is really important for what I do.
Overall, I think the lesson went really well, and it certainly got better as the day went on. I was really glad Ms. Scali was there to help since she’s a pro. I learned some very important things like “Falcon Five,” where when stated it magically silences a classroom (of course, this only works at my school). And although I’ve always had a huge appreciation for the teachers who helped me get to where I am today, after my lesson that appreciation was enhanced dramatically because I was beat. But it was awesome, and I’m looking forward to the next one!