STEM Kit With a NASA ''Spin''
By: Amy Johnson
As part of teacher accreditation upkeep, Cindy Jones, a physical education teacher from Chesterfield County in Midlothian, Va., decided to take a children's engineering course. A former math teacher and self-described tinkerer, Jones thought it would be interesting.
What has grown out of her decision to take that class has taken on a life of its own.
Though Jones teaches P.E., she is a former math teacher and has a mind for science. Inspired by the engineering class she took, Jones began incorporating basic engineering and physics principles into her curriculum at Clover Hill Elementary. She designed self-propelled simple machines that students used to pull themselves across the gym floor. The activities she created for her students went over so well that she won several awards for being innovative in the classroom.
One award, the R.E.B. Award for Teaching Excellence, provided Jones with a $10,300 grant that gave her the opportunity to attend astronaut training at NASA's Johnson Space Center, learn about computer-aided design and rapid protocol systems at NASA Langley and attend the International Technology Education Association conference. While at Langley, Jones met University Affairs officer Thom Pinelli in the education office. Their connection would pave the way for a future partnership.
Jones, who is also president of the Children's Council of the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association, wondered what else she could do to excite kids about engineering.
A tour of NASA Langley's Rapid Prototyping Labs and a collaboration with Langley's Education office proved to be inspirational.
"Cindy is just exploding with ideas," said Nancy Holloway, head of NASA Langley's Advanced Processes Development Section.
During a meeting with Pinelli and Holloway, Jones talked about her idea to make an affordable, user-friendly engineering kit to teach elementary and middle school students about simple and compound machines.
She got the idea after looking to order some for her own students. Her search was frustrating, because none of what she found online or in catalogues looked engaging.
"To be honest, they bored me stiff," Jones said. "I want students to get excited about engineering and about building something themselves. With a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) kit, they could learn about simple machines, compound machines and create their own."
This is where NASA Langley stepped in.
Pinelli suggested a collaboration of the minds. Why not make the engineering kit space related? Holloway was also interested. She thought the engineering kit would be a great project for one of her co-op students, Chris Savage, while mentoring with senior technician Gary Wainwright.
Knowing exactly what she wanted, Jones put together a design and handed her specifications to the technicians at Langley. Her goal was to design something robust and interesting, economical for teachers' budgets, compact with interchangeable parts and easy storage so pieces won't go missing or get put in the wrong place.
Using everyone's input, Savage got to work creating a STEM kit prototype through digital manufacturing at the Rapid Prototyping Lab.
The kit is made up of the six simple machines: lever, pulley, incline plane, wheel and axel, screw and wedge, plus gears. Compound machines include block and tackle, gear train, rack and pinion, crane, wheelbarrow and balance, plus other fun pieces including an elevator, pendulum and weights. The pieces are made of durable polycarbonate plastic through a high-tech manufacturing process. Jones also asked Savage to make a lunar rover to go in the kit. Holloway had a toy lunar rover in her office that gave Jones the idea, to give it a NASA "spin."
Savage explains the process: "We create parts layer-by-layer and we build them up. The information to fabricate these parts comes directly from the computer, much like you would print out a history report or web page off a printer, but we do it with plastics, waxes and resins," he said.
Jones worked with Savage, Wainwright and Holloway throughout the entire process and recently visited NASA Langley for the big "unveil."
"It's like a 3-D puzzle," Jones said. "It is really awesome."
The STEM engineering kit prototype is a vibrant red, white and blue and features a storage case, much like a cabinet, with drawers to hold all the pieces.
Jones was ecstatic to see her idea manifested at NASA Langley.
"It's just a dream come true," she said.
"My ultimate goal is to get the STEM kit to the students and let them work with it," she continued. "I think this will be a tremendous tool for teachers. It demonstrates simple machines, compound machines and allows students to create their own. It allows students to be innovative as well as learn to problem solve. It is an exciting kit."
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