Bringing creative engineering to students

September 1, 2014 OpenSystems Media

Shawn Jordan, Assistant Professor at Arizona State University's Fulton Schools of Engineering, has combined his Rube Goldberg proficiency and passion for making and teaching into the STEAM Labs program (steamlabs.asu.edu), which challenges middle school and high school students to apply the engineering design process to create and build Rube Goldberg-like chain reaction machines.

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Figure 1: Making + Tinkering camper building an artbot (photo credit: Micah Lande)

"It teaches engineering skills, systems thinking, and collaboration, and integrates the arts with the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math," Jordan says. Adding arts to the traditional STEM acronym transforms it to STEAM.

STEAM Labs brings deeper opportunities for creativity not often found in engineering outreach program activities.

"Rube Goldberg Machines engage students on multiple levels to design both the problems they want to solve and the solutions for those problems (similar to the maker movement)," Jordan says. "This is different than many of the standard engineering outreach activities, where students are given a specific problem to solve. This environment creates an opportunity for creativity, imagination, and making dreams of inventions a reality."

Scholars in engineering and gifted education have developed the program over the past seven years, and it has been deployed to more than 2,500 middle and high school students in the U.S. and Trinidad and Tobago. Students work in face-to-face and virtual teams at camps to build chain-reaction STEAM Machines in a project-based, cooperative learning environment with online collaboration tools.

Engineering design will be a requirement in science classes beginning in fall 2015 as part of the Next Generation Science Standards for K-12 education in the U.S. STEAM Labs is designed to help students better understand engineering career possibilities in addition to learning real-world engineering skills.

"The program challenges students to not only ask 'why?' but also 'why not?' – a question that I think is all too often lost in today's youth," Jordan says. "This in turn helps students understand that you can be creative and be successful in engineering – an important message, given pop culture's less-than-flattering messages about engineering."

Lead image: High school students work together in teams to build a chain-reaction STEAM Machine (photo credit: Chad Westover)

Monique DeVoe (Managing Editor)
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