Engineering classroom success in Portsmouth

Portsmouth Middle School teacher Sharon Raposo (left) and Melville teacher Michele Polselli wait to see if the paper tower they built withstands the weight of a stuffed toy pig. It did. Portsmouth Middle School teacher Sharon Raposo (left) and Melville teacher Michele Polselli wait to see if the paper tower they built withstands the weight of a stuffed toy pig. It did.

Portsmouth Middle School teacher Sharon Raposo (left) and Melville teacher Michele Polselli wait to see if the paper tower they built withstands the weight of a stuffed toy pig. It did.

Portsmouth Middle School teacher Sharon Raposo (left) and Melville teacher Michele Polselli wait to see if the paper tower they built withstands the weight of a stuffed toy pig. It did.

PORTSMOUTH — As Sharon Raposo carefully balanced a small bean bag pig on top of a two-foot tower made from index cards, fellow teacher Michele Polselli braced for the worst as the middle school classroom fell into hushed silence.

But the pig — and the house of cards — never fell after a mandatory 10-count. Success!

Ms. Raposo and Ms. Polselli were among two dozen teachers taking part in an all-day training session that introduced them to Engineering is Elementary (EiE) Monday.

The EiE curriculum was developed by the Museum of Science in Boston through its National Center for Technological Literacy. Raytheon Co. awarded a $37,000 grant to the district to train teachers in grades 3 to 5.

Portsmouth Middle School teacher Brooke Grant places a pink piggy on a suspended paper chair, hoping it will hold the weight.

Portsmouth Middle School teacher Brooke Grant places a pink piggy on a suspended paper chair, hoping it will hold the weight.

EiE aims at integrating engineering and technology concepts and skills with elementary science topics to guide and prepare students for continued STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning and potential careers paths. (In a nod to the importance of creative thinking, Portsmouth and some other school districts have added art to the mix, making it STEAM.)

“We’re focusing on STEAM and this is really our first big step. It’s introducing engineering in our schools in grades 3, 4 and 5 through our science classes,” said Assistant School Supt. Jeff Schoonover, adding that the district hopes to eventually expand the program to grades 1-2 and 6-8.

Each teacher receives an engineering kit that comes with a book they will read to their students.

“All that is paid for by Raytheon,” said Mr. Schoonover, who applied for the grant last year. “Each kit targets an area of engineering but also an area of science, so it easily integrates the engineering standards right into our science program. With the next-generation science standards which we’ve recently adopted, there’s a big emphasis on engineering practices. It’s about thinking like an engineer — designing solutions to problems.”

Portsmouth Middle School teachers Becky Silveira (left) and Hannah Lancaster explain how their built their tower made from index cards.

Portsmouth Middle School teachers Becky Silveira (left) and Hannah Lancaster explain how their built their tower made from index cards.

“We have 20 EiE units,” said Elise Morgan, senior professional development provider for EiE at the Museum of Science. “In each of our units we have four lessons and the first lesson is always the storybook, so there’s a literacy element involved in there, too.”

The second lesson explains what engineering really is, said Ms. Morgan, noting that some of the younger students think all engineers work with trains. “In one lesson we act out an intersection and we talk about transportation and how engineers work to make it more safe and efficient,” she said. “They all have some type of hands-on design challenge.”

The challenges include everything from designing a water filter (using the book “Saving Salila’s Turtle” to introduce students to the problem of water pollution) to improving a play dough process (using “Michelle’s MVP Award”).

House of cards

Melville teacher Dawn Borden reacts when the weight of the pig smashes the town she built with Mary Stockard (left).

Melville teacher Dawn Borden reacts when the weight of the pig smashes the town she built with Mary Stockard (left).

The morning portion of Monday’s teacher training program focused on introductory activities “to get participants on the same page as far as what is technology and what is engineering,” said Ms. Morgan.

During the index card exercise, Elissa Jordan, professional development provider for EiE, asked teachers to become students and solve the following problem: In 18 minutes, build a tower out of index cards — at least 24 inches tall — that’s strong enough to withstand the weight of a small bean bag pig. (Using the same materials, teachers also had the option of suspending from the ceiling a paper chain sturdy enough to hold the toy.)

“We actually came up with two designs,” said Ms. Polselli, a third-grade teacher at Melville School. “The first was sort of a weaving design and it wasn’t supportive enough. Then we came up with the folding design to give it more support.”

Ms. Raposo, a fourth-grade special ed instructor at the middle school, was tasked with folding the cards. “I was making halves and thirds and they were placing them in order to get it done in the 18 minutes,” she said. “I kept looking at the clock and telling them, ’10 minutes … eight minutes…’”

Ms. Morgan said participating teachers like the hands-on element of the training. “They appreciate doing the things that the kids are going to do,” she said.

Ms. Raposo and Ms. Polselli agreed.

“This is great. I’d do this in my classroom,” said Ms. Raposo.

Added Ms. Polselli, “I think the kids would get real excited and that motivation in the classroom is a definite, number-one key to success. I think this would totally motivate them and they’d want to do it.”

Full STEAM ahead

Mr. Schoonover said he liked EiE because introducing young students to basic engineering concepts is particularly vital in this area.

“We probably have more engineers on this island per capita than anywhere else in Rhode Island, probably all the way up to outside of Boston,” he said. “And the kids love it. They’re coming from these engineering families. There’s a lot of value into engineering. If you Google ‘top 10 best-paying jobs out of college’ or ‘top 10 jobs of the next decade,’ it’s all this science, technology, engineering and math. We owe it to our kids to be better prepared … so they can see what engineering really is.”

For more information about Engineering is Elementary, visit www.eie.org.

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