MS STEAM at PDS Powered by Hands-on Engineering/Design

Princeton Day School's STEAM course offerings are among the most extensive in the state for Upper and Middle School students, and some recent Middle School engineering and design projects underscore the innovative work, skill-building and resources that power the program. At every grade level, age-appropriate units explore STEAM elements primarily through hands-on projects that build on one another, often literally as well as figuratively.

Princeton Day School's STEAM course offerings are among the most extensive in the state for Upper and Middle School students, and some recent Middle School engineering and design projects underscore the innovative work, skill-building and resources that power the program. At every grade level, age-appropriate units explore STEAM elements primarily through hands-on projects that build on one another, often literally as well as figuratively. Two spring units in Eighth Grade and in Fifth Grade are designed to culminate in capstone exercise that encompasses all of the concepts explored throughout each unit. 

Eighth Grade Car Engineering Design

The Eighth Grade science curriculum features a robust physics unit, which introduces students to key concepts such as Newton's laws, velocity and acceleration and ideas behind kinetic energy and momentum. To complete the unit, faculty created an engineering design project to incorporate all of these concepts. "We wanted students to use materials to create a car that included the body, chassis, wheel system and some sort of protective system. The goal was to build a system that would prevent a raw egg from cracking during a crash,"  Science Department Chair Jason Park explained.

Small teams of two to four students each (in each of the the three Eighth Grade classes taught by Mr. Park and MS Science teachers Annemarie Strange and Erin Iwai) created two cars, while remote students created one, prior to the final testing day when the cars would be crashed. Particular emphasis was placed on the design process and paying close attention to detail. "At the outset, they explored the 'empathy' stage of the design process, which includes collecting information about what they are supposed to do and how to do it. Then, they ideated the data that they initially collected and brainstorm the design," Mr. Park noted, referring to key steps in the Stanford Design (D) School design process used by the students.

Students then had one day to build their cars, which typically included multiple iterations, prototyping and revising for each group. Finally, on the third and final day, they crashed their two cars into each other on video (remote students crashed their single car into a wall at home) and recorded important data, including the weight of their car, the distance of the track that their cars traveled and the time it took for the cars to reach the crash point. These data points were used to calculate the force on the cars, the impact velocity and the momentum the car was collecting at the point of collision.

The students' findings were ultimately presented to their classmates in addition to insights and reflections on their design process, features of their car and the collaboration experience. "This project taught them so much about practical application of the engineering design process. One key takeaway many students mentioned is how they needed to be precise and frugal with their usage of supplies and time because they only had a finite amount of resources. These are critical, real-life parameters that are important to plan for in so many aspects of life beyond engineering," Mr. Park concluded.

8th Grade students working on their Car Design Project

Fifth Grade Designs to Make a Difference

Princeton Day School Fifth Grade scientists, taught by Jessica Clingman, have been learning about the engineering design process, sustainability and using design thinking to solve problems. Each cycle, students participated in a 'build challenge' for practical application of the concepts. In the third cycle this spring, students designed rafts for the build challenge portion of the unit. On-campus students tested their rafts in the classroom while at-home learners tested in their bathtubs and demonstrated via Zoom. In every cycle, each build challenge is followed by the "Design a Difference at Home" project, in which students explore solving problems that exist at their homes.

"Using the 'empathy - define - ideate - prototype - test' design process created at the Stanford D school, students interviewed family members to identify a problem that they could help solve at home and began applying the process to find a solution," Mrs. Clingman noted.

Examples of projects include a variety of bug removal devices, a car organizer for dog travel, an outdoor work station and an alarm clock to help a sibling wake up. Students this spring are currently in the prototyping stage of the process. After prototyping, they will receive feedback from their users and modify their design before entering the testing phase.

"This project is great because it not only features practical application of what we've learned, it also encourages students to see themselves as problem solvers and capable of making the world a better place," Mrs. Clingman said.

MS science students building their "Design a Difference" projects
Fifth graders presenting their rafts during a building project
Remote Fifth graders presenting their design projects

For more information on the PDS STEAM program, visit the STEAM landing page on the School website.

Photos (from top): 8th graders from two different groups working on their cars (photos by Jason Park); 5th graders working on their "Design a Difference at Home" projects; collage of students presenting their rafts in the classroom; remote students presenting from home; (photos courtesy of MS Science teacher Jessica Clingman)

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