Engineering with Paper Airplanes, Origami, and Good Junk
It’s a Friday afternoon, and kids in the Amherst Wildwood Elementary School cafeteria are making the most of a box of junk. With cookie and cereal boxes, plastic cups and lids, popsicle sticks, toothpicks, tissue paper, and lots of tape, they are making horses, trains, and rockets. Others are flying paper airplanes into pyramids of cups, trying to determine how hard you have to throw the plane to knock it all down.
The kids are part of the weekly Engineering School Afterschool program—an offshoot of the College of Education’s TEAMS tutoring program—and the junk is “good junk,” the building blocks of their work. Engineering School gives the students the opportunity to explore STEM activities. They design, build, and evaluate whatever they can imagine, engaging their curiosity and creativity, and building confidence through student-centered, multimodal learning.
You see kids going back to their launchpad and saying, ‘Oh, that plane had a lot of lift, it had a lot of flight and glide.’ They’re explaining it in a qualitative way and eliminating ‘good, better, best’ words, which are not effective and only make kids feel bad about their performance. They’re able to feel successful regardless of what the outcome of the flight is.Marissa Best
In the second semester of the school year, Best began bringing “good junk” for the kids to create whatever they could imagine, letting them the lead on design, building, testing, and revision. Their projects included a bathtub, lightning rods, binoculars, and transformers, trains, and musical instruments. Best also brought several TEAMS tutors into the project, including Chan Kim, Tyler Clardy, Max Ahearn, Danielle Motta, and Marissa Pati. They’d talk the kids through their projects, encouraging them, and helping them think through their designs and creations.
“What she found was really interesting to me,” Edwards observes. “She found that kids didn’t comment negatively about each other’s projects. In fact, they did the opposite. They encouraged each other, and when they saw something they liked, they went back and used it in their own design. They started to help each other. It really became an artists’ cooperative.”
She found that kids didn’t comment negatively about each other’s projects. In fact, they did the opposite. They encouraged each other, and when they saw something they liked, they went back and used it in their own design. They started to help each other. It really became an artists’ cooperative.Sharon Edwards
The engineering projects gave Best and her team opportunities to help the kids see themselves differently, and understand themselves as scientists. She recalls a student who showed her a project, proudly proclaiming, “I designed this purse!” She responded, “Actually you engineered that purse because you wrote out a plan, and then you chose what materials you were going to use, and then you built that. That’s engineering because of the process that you used.” Best loved to see the mind shift happen. “That vocabulary that you give the children, they’ll actually use it and that opens a lot of doors even at such a young age. Then, when these STEM topics—which might have seemed daunting or not accessible to kids before—are introduced in the classroom they’re like, ‘I already know that because I engineered when I was in Afterschool.’”
In this year’s Engineering school, Best and Edwards have seen clear potential for positive mental health outcomes. In the short term, the cooperative and supportive nature of the group builds the kids’ confidence in themselves, especially as science learners, and their ability to work in a team, appreciating and building on each other’s talents and ideas.
I felt like Santa Claus with a big bag full of recycled materials. I was essentially bringing trash and kids were so excited to spend that hour just building and creating.Marissa Best