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In their mini-lesson taught by Innovative Learning Director Suzy Cox, students at Centennial Middle School explored electrical engineering. This training led students to put the district’s Engineering Design Process to good use in a final project creating classroom accommodations for students with cerebral palsy.

But before they could work on their final project, Dr. Cox tasked students to build Hummingbird bots from the ground up, serving as a lesson to introduce the necessary electrical engineering skills required for their cerebral palsy accommodations project.

In the first session, Dr. Cox divided students into groups of four, handing out small plastic bins containing a bundle of wires, sensors, and other engineering materials. She asked the students to unbox the parts and make two separate piles of input and output components.

She then brought the groups together for group work. First, she asked students what students observed and what each group had in each pile. Students pointed out traits– like color-coded wires, for example– that they used to make deductions about their parts. She then reviewed questions students had during their group activity.

“Do any pieces in your box surprise or confuse you?” Director Cox asked.

One girl raised her hand. 

“Looking at this sensor, I can’t tell how it would gather temperature.” 

Director Cox thought for a moment before bringing up real-world examples of temperature sensors, starting with thermometers. Her real-world example catapulted a series of connections students made to synthesize information in future lessons.

The rest of the lesson followed the same routine; students worked in groups according to an objective before rounding up and describing their inference process. Then, she modeled how to make real-world connections to each process or piece. 

Throughout the lesson, Dr. Cox constantly asked groups questions like, “What do you notice about this sensor?” She would follow up with more open-ended questions: “Why do you think that is?” “How would X work if you connected it to Y?”

Using Lev Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory, think-pair shares, and a blend of project-based and

, students learned at their own pace according to their knowledge level, using the project to extend their learning by asking questions. Working in groups meant students used their peers as teachers, and students that taught strengthened their knowledge by introducing the concepts to their peers. Students asked questions and made connections that came up naturally while building their Hummingbird bots. By the end of the session, students had the knowledge necessary to start their project.

In the following session, Doctor Cox introduced the district Engineering Design Process, which emphasizes the importance of empathy in engineering. Dr. Cox asked students to consider challenges a student with cerebral palsy might face at school, such as difficulties communicating and dangerous obstacles around the classroom. Students followed the district design process to develop, test, and iterate small-scale models of their solutions using the Hummingbird kits they had learned about on the first day. 

The students created model solutions, from using lights to answer questions to making a warning system as a student approached obstacles. Groups shared their solutions both in class and by creating videos.

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The lesson demonstrates why engineering classes are important. It’s not just that the students learn basic coding skills. It’s not just that engineering experiences lead to exciting new career opportunities in a world that grows more complex and challenging with each passing day. Students carry away lifelong skills; they can fix their cars or better identify and utilize DIY at home. They gain a richer understanding of the world, receive a series of tools to problem-solve, relate in groups with others, and think deeply about how they acquire knowledge. 

Perhaps most importantly, students engage in empathetic thinking. Much like their cerebral palsy project, students start by asking themselves about the challenges that others face, and what solutions they can forward to help make their lives a little easier.

This is a chance for students to develop academic mastery over a subject, prepare for our ever-changing job market, practice meta-cognition to grow as a person, and build their community through empathetic acts– and what else can you ask for when it comes to schooling?

Engineering is available to all interested students through the STEM Inclusion Initiative, with optional electives for middle and high schoolers. Read more about the STEM Inclusion Initiative.

Spencer Tuinei
  • Communication Specialist
  • Spencer Tuinei
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