Racing The Middle School Brain

[NPR captures the trials and tribulations of a group of middle school students as they work on their design for a human kinetics race car. This summer at the South Fayette STEAM Innovation Summer Institute I had a chance to watch middle school students grapple with similar challenges as they learned how to program drones to play student designed games. In both cases it’s a great STEAM challenge that keeps kids engaged and involved in an authentic problem.]

Students design drone game

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

When things heat up, they expand. And when that thing is the axle shaft to your drive train, you’re going to have to make adjustments, or else.

Michael Guarraia kneels down next to a metal part that just popped off the rear axle. “Ok guys, listen up,” he tells his team. “The drive train broke again and we need to find a sustainable solution. This can’t happen during the race.”

The team members nod and furrow their brows. Some scratch their heads.

Illustration of the pedal car

LA Johnson/NPR

In front of these young engineers is the 200-pound steel frame that is the base of their racing vehicle.

One gets up close and points to the piece that popped off. It’s called a woodruff key. “We need to reinforce this,” says Sean Davis, sketching his idea on a small white board. “Maybe with magnets?”

Illustration of a woodruff key

LA Johnson/NPR

Heads nod in agreement. “We could use duct tape, here,” Aiden Blair adds. They all look at Guarraia for an answer.

Good ideas, he tells them, but even with those fixes it still won’t be stable enough. And they were good thoughts, considering the “guys” are 11- to 13-year-olds, and this is middle school.

Welcome to Kinetic Race Club at Arbutus Middle School. Guarraia is a science teacher at the suburban Maryland school, about a 20-minute drive from Baltimore.

He and two dozen students are on an eight-month mission to design and build a human-powered kinetic sculpture that they’re going to race on a 15-mile obstacle course around Baltimore Harbor.

What, exactly, is a “kinetic sculpture”?

Basically it’s a giant piece of art that contains movement within it. It can only be powered by people—no motors allowed—so the designers have to get really creative.

Guarraia and his team agreed to let NPR Ed hang out with them as they built their vehicle and raced it. The drive-shaft crisis came in March – by this time they’d been working after school on their design for six months.

It was supposed to be a big day —the first day of test-driving— but the woodruff key popped out, causing the bike chain to slack and fall off.

The vehicle can’t run like this, so it’s back to the shop. But “Mr. G.” and the team have come a long way since day one. Let’s go back to the beginning.

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Students share human-centered designs at Emoti-Con technology showcase

[Combing human-centered design with computational thinking makes tremendous sense. I work with the South Fayette SD in the Pittsburgh area, a member of the League of Innovative Schools. Like the students in this Hechinger Report, students at South Fayette solve real-world problems starting with empathy, testing, iterating, prototyping, and developing a solution.]


Ideas — and beach balls — were flying as students at the New York Emoti-Con event kicked off the day with an exercise in low-tech problem solving: use beach balls, inner tubes and foam pool noodles to design a simple game. Keynote speaker and game designer Ramsey Nasser instructed them. Photo: Jamie Martines

Austin Carvey grew up in Washington Heights, a largely Hispanic neighborhood in northern Manhattan, where he watched his neighbors struggle to advocate for themselves because they could not speak English. Now, he’s urging his peers to join him in using technology to generate solutions to problems in their communities.

Carvey is a senior at the High School for Math, Science and Engineering at City College and the co-founder of the organization Young Hackers, which seeks to draw more minority and low-income kids into the hacker community in New York City. He spent much of his time during the eighth annual Emoti-Con showcase earlier this month fielding questions from his younger peers about the ethical implications of advanced technology and the applications of computer science training in the real world.

“It exposes students to different applications of technology,” he said of the conference. “When you start, it’s really just websites and web apps, maybe some robot stuff. But knowing you can really do anything with technology, it really opens up your mind and makes you more creative.”

Emoti-Con brings New York City students together to present their technology projects and network with each other. It combines aspects of high-tech coding and engineering with an emphasis on human-centered design and problem-solving. Projects on display at the event, held in New York’s main public library, included a robot built in the back of a Spanish classroom at Baruch College Campus High School designed to provide an energy-efficient way to clean subway tracks, and a radio podcast produced by middle school students at The School for Human Rights in Brooklyn examining racism in their community. The podcast, which unlike many of the other projects focused on using technology for storytelling, was awarded one of the top prizes for social impact.

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