Introducing Kids to the Wonders of Science
ENG camp entices young minds with planes, rockets, and robots
In the slideshow above, watch and hear students at work in BU’s U-Design science camp. Photos by Joseph Chan
You had to watch your step in Room 113 of the Photonics center the last two weeks lest you trip over the foot-long, clawed robots spinning on two wheels along the tile floor, their circles and L-turns determined by computer programmers too young, in some cases, to drive a car. Greater Boston students from 6th to 9th grades, they’d been assigned to build and program robots that could pick up plastic balls.
“Robo-Alley” was one of three workshops being offered as part of the College of Engineering’s tenth annual U-Design, a camp that brought 80 budding scientists to campus. Josh Neudel (CAS’01), who teaches at a private school in Waltham during the school year, had just shown his students–most of them clueless about computer code–how to write a few simple commands. He also made them pair up. “Part of science and engineering is learning how to work with other people,” he said.
Another workshop, “Flight School 101,” explored aerodynamics, both with experts (like R. Glynn Holt, ENG associate professor of mechanical engineering and a former substitute astronaut for NASA) and hands-on exercises. The latter included making rockets out of water bottles and cardboard and dropping them from the 9th floor of the Photonics’ atrium to see if the plastic parachutes deployed. (Most didn’t, but that didn’t squelch squeals of delight.) “Electrical and Mechanical Gizmos” meanwhile introduced students to electricity and electromagnetism.
U-Design aims “to fill the pipeline” with future engineers and scientists, says Richard Lally, the program’s director and associate dean of administration at ENG. It responds to reports like one six years ago by the federal National Academies, warning that American scientific supremacy was slipping in the face of poor performance by U.S. high school seniors on math and science tests and the graduation of vastly more Chinese and Indian engineers, among other things.
U-Design’s instructors—high school teachers recruited by the University, aided by BU doctoral and undergraduate students, with cameo appearances by professors like Holt—introduce measured bits of math and science to the proceedings, but “not to the extent where it becomes not fun,” Lally says. The age range is the sweet spot at which kjds are old enough to grasp science and math and open to academic interests. The camp allows them to follow their scientific curiosity freed from worries about tests and sedentary classroom work. .
“From one out of 10, it’s probably an 8,” said Alia Thompson, critiquing the Robo-Alley workshop (this from a 13-year-old whose mom drafted her into attending). Alia, who’s entering 8th grade this fall in Weston, Ma., enjoyed time on a computer, the “trial-and-error” approach to learning, and a topic that, she says, was “out of my zone” and different from her hoped-for career as a pediatrician.
Vivek Singh and his cousin Siddharth Singh, students entering their sophomore years in Wayland and Sharon, Ma., respectively, stared at the code sprawling on their computer monitor, fine-tuning numbers to make their robot work. Siddharth hadn’t been that interested in robotics until U-Design. “Learning how to program makes it more interesting, seeing results come into the robot,” he said. The computer-based engineering tools he’d used in school previously “was pretty boring. It was just kind of drawing lines on the computer.” Both boys said U-Design had put engineering on the table as a career consideration..
“If I did this at school,” Vivek said, “I wouldn’t be working with my hands.”
Neudel said that chats with his charges revealed some who “aren’t necessarily good classroom students. They have lots of energy, they can’t sit in a chair in a class for 45 minutes to an hour a day, they don’t do particularly well on tests and quizzes.” In U-Design, by contrast, they “work and play and ask questions, and we’re looking at the product they have at the end, not a test or a quiz. They can get up and walk around for a second, there’s a lot more movement. It’s a very tactile program. It’s this educational philosophy of getting kids to be doing [activities] in a way that’s going to look more like science in the real world.”
Gary Garber (GRS’99), a physics instructor at Boston University Academy, spent his fourth summer with U-Design this year in Flight School 101. Garber, a licensed pilot, taught students how to read an instrument panel and follow an FAA map, and he put some in flight simulators. “I hope they are inspired to pursue aeronautical engineering further,” he says. “Maybe they will want to become an astronaut or work for NASA!” The payback flows both ways: Garber says he doesn’t get to teach much about rockets and aeronautics in his regular physics classes, “so this is the one week a year I get to teach something that is a passion of mine.”
Scholarships are available for eligible families. “Our goal is to have under-represented students in engineering be represented here,” including minorities and girls, Lally says. Student and parent exit surveys after the two weeks routinely indicate the program is meeting its goal—in his words, students leaving after two weeks and saying, “ ‘That was pretty cool. I could see myself doing that.’ ”
Rich Barlow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments