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Engineering is the new hands-on class at Dedham Middle School

Posted by Dave Eisenstadter  February 1, 2013 04:00 PM

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Eighth grader Matt Wilcox shows off his group's locker organizer for the new engineering class at Dedham Middle School.

Once the realm of wood shop classes, hands-on building is now a part of Dedham Middle School’s new course in engineering.

“This type of course is very important to middle school education,” said Mary Belge, Dedham Middle School’s first engineering teacher, newly hired this academic year. “I see students performing well in my class who don’t do as well in traditional ‘read this book, answer these questions’ classes.”

Dedham long ago got rid of its traditional shop classes in favor of courses in computers and video production, but the state's recently updated public school curriculum frameworks focusing on engineering are putting emphasis back on some of those lost skills.

Among them are explaining how to safely use hand and power tools, and identifying the reasons behind building something, as with an old-fashioned shop class. But the engineering class also covers problem-solving techniques and processes using prototypes as well as the mechanics behind how buildings are constructed.

The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests are one indicator of the need to focus on that material, according to Dedham Middle School Principal Debra Gately.

“Historically as a school, we have done well on the MCAS, but the science scores have always been a concern,” Gately said.

From 2008 to 2011, Dedham Middle School eighth graders averaged about 86 percent proficiency in English Language Arts and 56 percent proficiency in math, both above the state averages of 78 and 50 percent, respectively.

The science test was the hardest for eighth graders statewide, with an average of only 39 percent proficiency from 2008 to 2011. In 2009, 2010, and 2011, Dedham students failed to reach even that number.

But that trend, in Dedham at least, is turning around. With an increased focus on science curriculum, including engineering standards, Dedham eighth graders went from 34 percent proficiency in science in 2011 to 48 proficiency in 2012.

Both Belge and Gately expect that trend to continue upward with the engineering course in place. Belge attended a Museum of Science engineering curriculum workshop to help her incorporate the state's 27 curriculum frameworks focused on engineering, which are tested on the MCAS exam.

Student interest in the material could clearly be seen in one of Belge’s classes last week. The assignment for the day was to make oral presentations about the most recent project, creating the greatest locker organizer in the world.

Surrounding students were printouts of quotes Belge had hung on the walls – “I have not failed; I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work,” and “You can’t plow a field simply by turning it over in your mind.”

Most presentations took the form of advertisements, the first featuring a jingle for the group’s organizer, Boxy Clean. “Boxy clean, boxy clean, the best organizer you’ve ever seen,” sang the students, concluding the performance with jazz hands.

Students tackled the problem in different ways. One group glued together a long row of pants pockets to hold small items like pencils and cell phones. Another created a shelf to keep food separate from the rest of the locker. A third created a section with dividers for different books and binders in different courses.

Following each group’s presentation, Belge asked what worked and what could be improved. The next stage of the process will be to redesign the organizers.

With presentations complete, eighth grader Hayley Balestra talked about the larger assignment of learning the eight steps of the engineering design process: define the problem, research the problem, develop possible solutions, choose the best solution, create a prototype, test and evaluate it, communicate the solution, and redesign.

“It’s really fun and exciting – you get to make your own products and it’s basically what people who do engineering do,” Balestra said.

Matt Wilcox, another of Belge’s students, said his group interviewed students to find out what challenges existed for people trying to keep their lockers organized. After those discussions, students looked at materials they had at their disposal – cardboard, foam board, glue, and duct tape.

Wilcox and Balestra agreed that the engineering course was unlike any other course they had taken.

“In other classes we just learn; in this class we actually get to do,” Wilcox said.

Going through the design process, he said he enjoyed thinking about how to solve a problem and then seeing how people would use the product built.

“And at the end you can say, ‘Oh yeah, I built that,’” he said.

Classmate Maggie Rocha said the engineering class felt more relevant to the everyday world than other science classes. Where her other science classes have dealt with abstract concepts, engineering has helped her think of something useful – a locker organizer – and how she would go about making one.

Rocha was selected in her group to have the locker organizer tested in her locker. She said one of the group’s biggest challenges was getting all the pieces together to fit nicely into the confined space of the locker.

Both Rocha and fellow eighth grader Alper Albayrak said the class emphasized teamwork.

“It’s a social class,” Albayrak said. “You have to work together.”

The community at large has embraced the course as well. When Principal Gately presented the new course to the School Committee in February 2012, it was among the only course changes to require hiring new staff.

Committee members approved the change.

Since then Belge has received a community grant of $750 for supplies from the Dedham Education Foundation. She has also presented the results of the class to the School Committee in December.

“There is no way your MCAS scores are not going to go up, but I hope that a lot more comes out of it,” Belge said at the presentation.

Something may have for Wilcox already. He had been considering engineering previously, but Belge’s class had further fascinated him in that potential career, he said.

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