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An elementary approach to engineering

Framingham school plays supporting role in Science Museum program for young students

Barbieri Elementary second-grader Adriana Carrasquillo, 8, demonstrates alternative versions of a wind turbine created as part of a Museum of Science engineering curriculum at the Framingham school. Barbieri Elementary second-grader Adriana Carrasquillo, 8, demonstrates alternative versions of a wind turbine created as part of a Museum of Science engineering curriculum at the Framingham school.
(Globe Staff / Matthew J. Lee)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Tanya Pérez-Brennan
Globe Correspondent / June 12, 2008

Pat Slater beckoned her second-grade students at Framingham's Barbieri Elementary School to watch as a fan, stacked on plastic file boxes, made the paper blades of a makeshift windmill spin in neat circles.

"Come see what worked," Slater said. "That's what engineers do."

Marco Turcios, 8, Alyssa Eden, 8, and Gianna Ortega, 7, huddled around in excitement, watching as the windmill they made became the first in the class to function. The students had dropped a handful of pennies in a cup connected to the windmill to see how much wind it had caught.

"It's moving!" Turcios said.

The Barbieri School's windmill project is part of the Engineering is Elementary curriculum, developed by the National Center for Technological Literacy at Boston's Museum of Science in an effort to reach young students nationwide.

Melissa Higgins, senior research assistant at the Museum of Science, said that four core people at the museum designed the engineering lessons for first- through fifth-graders, but the units are revised every summer. The units typically include an illustrated storybook featuring a child from a different country who uses the engineering design process to solve a problem. Slater has taught Engineering is Elementary for five years, and is one of two at Barbieri who teach the curriculum.

"Pat is one of our star teachers," said Higgins. "She's really helped us" develop the program.

Engineering is Elementary has partnered with 35 colleges and universities, and 5,500 teachers, to reach more than 190,000 children at 850 schools in 46 states, according to officials in the program. There are 500 schools in Massachusetts that have either used or are using the curriculum, Higgins said, including Johnson Elementary in Natick.

The Cisco Foundation in Boston recently announced a $250,000 grant to the National Center for Technological Literacy to study the effect of engineering curriculums on elementary schools. The foundation's New England Civic Council has supported the museum's curriculum development program with $1 million in grants and cash over the past four years, but the most recent donation is the largest individual grant, said council official Susan Crosby.

She said that the foundation's sponsor, Cisco Systems Inc., is committed to the program because it recognizes that there is a dearth of American-trained engineers.

"If you introduce engineering into the elementary schools, this is where the interest starts; you need to get them early on," Crosby said. "It's definitely recognizing a need, and finding a partner with the museum is a way to influence that training and education."

Slater said she has seen a real difference in her students, and their interest toward science, since they started the exploring the engineering curriculum.

"Nothing is as tremendous as this," she said. "It gets them to problem-solve."

The lessons tackled by her second-graders this school year included making plant pollinators and building walls with earth materials, such as rocks, soil, and clay, Slater said. Students learn the concepts first, then do projects to put those concepts into practice, she said.

During the recent lesson, before the first paper blades were set spinning, Slater prepped the students by asking them what materials they would need to build a windmill and its moving parts. About 17 students sat on the gray-blue carpet and listened to Slater as she gestured to a juice carton on a nearby table. A dowel was jutting from the center of the carton with a ball of plastic foam on one end and a string with a cup hanging from the other end.

"What does a turbine do?" Slater asked the students.

"It makes electricity," they chimed.

After talking about materials for the windmill blades - everything from popsicle sticks to felt - the youngsters worked in groups at the dark blue tables scattered throughout the classroom.

Caitlin Murphy, 8, jotting down a list of her materials, said she enjoys the lessons because they're fun.

"For science, it's probably my favorite subject," she said.

Slater said Murphy now aspires to being an engineer.

"I love hands-on stuff and getting the kids involved with technology," Slater said. "Especially girls."

At a training workshop for teachers at the Museum of Science on Saturday, Slater and fellow Barbieri teacher Nancy Yocom de Romero presented two unit lessons: one on astronomy and aerospace, and the other on sustainable energy.

Slater said some of the 30 or more teachers at the workshop were eager to get their hands on the units and observe the program's pilot teachers in action. Many of the teachers will field-test the museum's units this fall, said Yocom de Romero, who teaches in the second-grade bilingual program at Barbieri.

"People seemed really happy with the whole workshop and really enthusiastic about trying things out," Yocom de Romero said. "It's always fun and exciting to see teachers as enthusiastic about the material as their own students."

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