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September-October 2009 Selected Content

Good Stuff - Rebecca Rupp

Engineering for Everybody

The PBS show Design Squad stars kid engineers. Each week teams of high school kids, using a limited array of basic materials, compete to solve an engineering problem - say, turning a tricycle into a motorized dragster, building a portable peanut-butter-making machine, constructing a 20-foot bridge and a 10-foot kayak, or devising functional cardboard furniture. The kids are paired with a "D-Squad Pro File" - an interview with a professional inventor or engineer - in which viewers learn about everything from penguin habitats to roller-coaster design and swimming robots. The episodes are available at, along with engineering activities and challenges for a range of age groups, educator's guides, games, and suggestions for creating your own Design Squad events.

Design Squad is one of a number of recent programs, projects, and initiatives intended to introduce kids to the world of engineering. "Why K-12 Engineering?" is a publication of the American Society for Engineering Education that summarizes the benefits: engineering provides "academic glue" by linking math and science to real-world experiences, encourages creativity by promoting innovation and problem-solving skills, and enhances team-building and communication. (For the complete text, plus a great assortment of individual lesson plans and online resources, see

Guidelines for an engineering program for primary and secondary students can be obtained from the International Technology Education Association (ITEA), whose 258-page Standards for Technological Literacy can be downloaded from the Web site at This substantial document lists concepts and topics to be covered in grades K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12, with suggested approaches and "teaching vignettes" that describe successful engineering projects used in classroom groups. Younger kids, for example, experimented with ways to extract a toy truck or steam shovel (a stand-in for Mike Mulligan's Mary Ann) from a hole in a tub of wet sand, using a limited assortment of materials; dissected a ballpoint pen and drew diagrams of the parts; figured out how to clean up a model oil spill; and built a cat-proof house for Stuart Little. Older kids constructed artificial hands, analyzed a proposed location for a new airport, held a Great Paper Car Race, and built wind-powered monohull vessels for a student America's Cup competition.

Also see the Massachusetts Science and Technology/Engineering Curriculum Framework (2006) at which lists recommended concepts and topics in Earth and Space Science, Biology, Chemistry and Physics, and Technology/Engineering for grades preK-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12, with project and activity suggestions.

One of the few published engineering programs for early elementary-level kids is Engineering is Elementary (EIE) from Boston's Museum of Science. This is a collection of 13 short (45-page) chapter books, each featuring a child from a different racial/ethnic background and concentrating on a different aspect of engineering (mechanical, environmental, materials, civil, electrical, chemical, and so on). A double-page spread at the end of each book describes an accompanying engineering project: for example, kids build and test a simple windmill, construct a bunny-proof wall, invent a special package for a birthday present, and assemble an electrical circuit. The program is nicely organized, but the books (referred to as "storybooks") are not particularly engaging and the illustrations are blah. Still, it's a start. Each storybook costs $6.99 in paperback; the accompanying teacher's guides go for $45. For more information or to order, visit

For ages 11-15, the Intel Web site at features Design and Discovery, a (free) downloadable comprehensive inquiry-based curriculum on engineering through design, organized in six project-filled sections. Included are complete instructions, materials lists, student hand-outs, and readings.

For the same age group, Time Engineers from Software Kids teaches engineering and related science and math through a computer game in which kids travel to different historical periods to solve engineering problems. For example, players build a pyramid, construct a medieval drawbridge and catapult, and operate a World-War-II-era submarine. The home edition of the game costs $19.95; for more information or to order, visit

The Infinity Project, jointly developed by the Institute for Engineering Education and Texas Instruments, is a year-long engineering program for middle school, high school, and early college level students, designed to be implemented in schools. The accompanying 494-page textbook - Engineering: Our Digital Future (Geoffrey Orsak, et al.; Prentice-Hall, 2003) - is well designed and accessible, but assumes that students have a couple of years of algebra under their belts. Chapters include "The World of Modern Engineering," "Creating Digital Music," "Creating Digital Images," and "Networks from the Telegraph to the Internet." The book costs about $86. For more information (and a sample chapter), visit

Also for high-school students, Annenberg Media's The Mechanical Universe...and Beyond is an approachable 52-part series for young physicists, engineers, and the interested general public, viewable online at Sample episodes include "Newton's Laws," "Torques and Gyroscopes," "The Electric Circuit," "Electromagnetic Induction," and much more. Amusement Park Physics at is an interactive accompaniment to the series: here, for example, kids can design their own roller coasters and predict the outcomes of bumper car collisions.

A prime resource for engineers of practically all ages is a set of Legos - specifically the Lego Mindstorm series - with which kids, using an array of mechanical components and simple programming software, can build a creative array of robots and other machines. For information, building instructions, products, and books, see For Lego Mindstorm-related lesson plans, activities, and curriculum modules, visit Lego Engineering at This versatile program, partnered by the Tufts Center for Engineering Educational Outreach, features "Science Through Lego Engineering" for grades 3-5 and "Robotics" for grades 6-8, both free downloadable multi-lesson programs with teacher's guides, student hand-outs, and instructions. Elementary level students, for example, learn principles of engineering while designing and building a musical instrument, a model house, a model animal, and a people mover.

Books for budding engineers are legion. Mari Rutz Mitchell's Creating Clever Castles and Cars (Williamson Publishing, 2006) is a collection of simple building projects for ages 4-8, among them a newspaper-roll house, a bathtub submarine, a castle, a "rocking boat," and a dump truck. Ruth Kassinger's Build a Better Mousetrap (Wiley, 2002) for ages 9-12 has background information, history, and hands-on projects based on classic inventions; for example, kids can build a periscope, stethoscope, suspension bridge, rocket, and solar water heater. Curt Gabrielson's Stomp Rockets, Catapults, and Kaleidoscopes (Chicago Review Press, 2008), for ages 9-13, uses building projects to demonstrate how things work in everyday life, among them the human hand, the helicopter, the saxophone, and the (ever-popular) flush toilet. For the same age group, Jill Frankel's Gizmos & Gadgets: Creating Science Contraptions That Work (and Knowing Why) (Williamson Publishing, 1999) has instructions for a wide range of widgets that demonstrate the principles of physics, using such cheap and simple stuff as plastic soda bottles and cardboard tubes. Janice Van Cleave's Engineering for Every Kid (Wiley, 2007) has a large number of very simple activities intended to teach kids about different types of engineering (structural, aeronautical, electrical, optical, chemical, hydraulic, etc.).

For the sheer joy of engineering, David Macauley's wonderful The New Way Things Work (Houghton Mifflin, 1998) explains through spectacular diagrams how practically everything works, from watches and windmills to levers, lasers, microscopes, and microchips - all with the help of an endearing cartoon mammoth. (Recommended for ages 12 and up, but I'd stretch it.)

And don't miss Rube Goldberg, surely the greatest and zaniest engineer of them all, whose life story, a gallery of his cartoon contraptions, and a machine-building contest can be found at For fans of Rube, Arthur Geisert's Lights Out (Houghton Mifflin, 2005) is the picture book tale of a creative young pig who - afraid to go to sleep in the dark - builds a marvelous multifaceted machine that allows him to fall safely asleep before the lights go out. Or try Geisert's Oops (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), a wordless tale of engineering action and reaction, in which a small pig spills a glass of milk and sets off a Goldberg-style chain of disasters that ultimately leaves the pig family cheerfully having a meal in the rubble of their house.

Also check out "The Way Things Go" by artists David Weiss and Peter Fischli, now available on DVD. ($17.99 from Touted as "kinetic sculpture," this 30-minute Goldberg-style feat of engineering uses physics, chemistry, and a 100-foot stretch of precisely aligned household apparatus, including tea kettles, tires, balloons, ramps, barrels, and ladders. (Caution: your kids will immediately want to build one of their own...)

T-Minus: The Race to the Moon

For science-minded graphic novel lovers, T-Minus: The Race to the Moon by Jim Ottaviani, illustrated by Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon (Aladdin, 2009) is the fast-paced and wide-ranging story of the space race between the United States and Russia, beginning with the launch of Sputnik and culminating with Armstrong and Aldrin's historic landing on the moon. History, science, human interest, and excitement - it's all there. Recommended ages 9-12; about $12 from bookstores and online booksellers.

By the same author-illustrator team, also see Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards (G.T. Labs, 2005), the equally well-researched and exciting tale of the 19th century dinosaur "bone war" between Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh (with a supporting cast of characters including Buffalo Bill Cody, P.T. Barnum, Alexander Graham Bell, Chief Red Cloud, and Ulysses S. Grant).


Synergy Learning International's Connect magazine, subtitled "Teachers' Innovations in K-8 Science, Math, and Technology," looks like a terrific resource for homeschoolers, too. Published five times a year, each 25-page issue focuses on a single scientific, mathematical, or technological topic. Past topics, for example, have included the scientific method, oceans, geometry, light and color, early algebra, climate change, birds, and ancient technology. In each instance, feature articles discuss and describe hands-on projects, lesson plans, teaching approaches, and innovative educational materials. My latest issue - "Things in Motion: Newton's Laws," May/June 2009 - has articles on roller coaster physics, teaching science with catapults, Newton's Laws on the playground, and Newtonian mechanics with Legos, along with detailed instructions for building a spool tractor and conducting a multidisciplinary study of springs. Also included are resource reviews, literature links, and helpful website lists.

An annual subscription to the print version (5 issues) costs $28, from Synergy Learning, Inc., P.O. Box 60, Brattleboro, VT 05302-0060; (800) 769-6199; an online (pdf) version is available for an annual $20. Back issues cost $6 apiece (ten or more, $4, postpaid).

For more information, visit the Synergy Learning Web site at:

Rosetta Stone Latin

The latest in the Rosetta Stone language library, Latin, available at Levels 1, 2, and 3, is just as attractive and well-designed as its modern language programs, and organized along the same lines. The crux of the program is "dynamic immersion" - that is, users learn additional languages in the same way they picked up their first, through images, intuition, interactivity, and instruction - and without benefit of translation. It's surprisingly fast and it feels surprisingly natural. The images are colorful memory-enhancing photographs and drawings, accompanied by a written word or words plus clear pronunciation by a native (or, in this case, expert) speaker. Five minutes into Latin, Level 1, and you'll be able to distinguish singular and plural noun and verb endings, and will have a good start on a useful basic vocabulary. Various features allow you to practice reading, writing, listening, and speaking. There are also options for grammar and vocabulary quizzes, and a progress-tracking mode for record-conscious homeschoolers.

Levels 1, 2, and 3 can be purchased separately or in combination. Software is suitable for either Mac or Windows, and each level is paired with an "Audio Companion" for CD or MP3 player, with which users can further practice pronunciation, vocabulary, and conversation.

Single-level editions range in price from $259 to $299; the complete (Levels 1, 2, and 3) edition costs $549. If you're looking for an excellent language program, it's well worth it.

For more information, visit

© 2009, Rebecca Rupp

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