Engineering with Paper Airplanes, Origami, and Good Junk

The art of science and engineering

Engineering with Paper Airplanes, Origami, and Good Junk

In Engineering School at Wildwood Elementary, UMass students are nurturing the next generation of STEM professionals.

Professor Sharon Edwards with students Chan Kim and Marissa Best

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.

Marissa Best talks with Sharon Edwards

Engineering School got its start in the fall of 2017, when College of Education faculty member Sharon Edwards introduced Emily Chandran and Marissa Best, former tutors in the TEAMS class that she and Bob Maloy teach. Edwards was working with Chandran to formulate an honors thesis on teaching math to elementary school kids and thought that Best, her student in an independent study, would make a good partner in the project. 

Chandran and Best’s plan was to design a program that would attract a variety of kids, but that would also bring more girls to STEM activities. With guidance from Edwards and Maloy, they pitched a program to Janna Essig at the Mark’s Meadow Afterschool program at Wildwood, who was happy to bring them aboard. 

Edwards suggested that Chandran and Best approach the teaching of math “through the back door,” as she put it. “In other words, we’re not going to take anything that looks like mathematics to these kids,” she said. Instead, she proposed that they call the program “Flight School,” and teach math and science using paper airplanes. To make Flight School even more appealing, Chandran and Best made paper headgear for the kids with miniature planes attached to the tops. They were a big hit, and got the kids ready to learn how to fold the planes, run test flights, and retry different designs.

From there, Flight School began to evolve. Since the kids enjoyed the paper construction, Chandran and Best introduced origami, teaching the kids to make and sort seriated boxes - one smaller than the next - that fit into each other like nesting dolls. To get the kids’ attention, they started with several sheets of chart paper taped into a larger square and built a box big enough for Best to climb into. As with the head gear, the kids were sold. Beside the fun of folding, the process allowed Best and Chandran to teach measurement skills, multiplication, and ratios. It was at this point they redubbed the program “Engineering School,” since it had gone beyond “Flight School.”

Marissa Best stands in front of her research poster entitled, "Engineering and Design Afterschool"

After Chandran graduated in 2018, Best continued with Engineering School as an independent study under Edwards. In its new incarnation, Best, a public health and psychology major, wanted to look at the experience from a public health perspective, to see how the program might impact the mental health of the students involved. In consultation with Edwards, she decided to examine what would happen when the kids got materials but weren’t told what to do with them.

Best began with Flight School, letting the kids take over the entire R&D (research and development) process. They choose paper size, shape, color, and weight, worked on designs, and took test flights to determine which models flew most effectively. The kids learned the vocabulary of the physics of flight—like launch, lift, force, glide, spin, and aerodynamics—to describe their planes and the test flights. They quickly began working cooperatively, combining their ideas to figure out how to create planes that would soar.

Best’s intention was to show the kids the scientific process and to help them understand that no matter what happens with a given plane, it’s not a failure as long as it flies even a little. 

“Kids will fly an airplane and it will go right onto the ground and they’ll say, ‘that was a bad plane.’ We’ll ask, ‘How did that plane fly? What made it a bad plane,’ so that they can then begin to describe it qualitatively,” Best explains. “I’d say, ‘that just had a lot of drag, it doesn’t mean it was a bad plane. It just didn’t do what you wanted it to do.’ 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.”

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
A selection of student projects including a cardboard guitar and a transformer outfit made of cereal boxes

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.

Recycled materials on a shelf

In the long term, Best predicts that a program like this can lead to better health outcomes later in life. “As a public health major, we talk about education as a social determinant of health. You get to see that in this club firsthand—empowering students through multimodal education makes them feel in charge, not only of their education, but later they may be able to better access health resources and better understand their health decisions.” 

With her graduation, Best is handing the program over to Chan Kim, one of the TEAMS tutors. Because he is a math major, Edwards hopes they will be able to expand the children’s understanding of how math and science combine in the study of physics, and further their experience with the scientific process by consistently recording and analyzing the data from their experiments.

The beauty of the Engineering School is that it runs on very little cost—all it needs are items from the recycling bin and engaged volunteers. It is also adaptable, depending on the interest of the kids and the skills and knowledge of the instructors. For Best, the beauty is also in seeing how excited a group of kids can get about a bag of trash. 

“One day in January I had just hauled two big bags of good junk from my car. I was barely down the hallway and the kids were peeking out of the door of the cafeteria and physically jumping up and down saying, ‘She’s here, she’s here!’ Best recalls. “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.” 

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