Novel Engineering

Often teachers ask us how making can authentically connect literacy and language arts concepts. Tufts University’s Novel Engineering is answer! This is one of our favorite activities because it uses common recyclable materials, easy to access craft supplies, and encourages students to dive deeper into books and stories in order to create unique solutions for problems the characters are facing. With a focus on the literacy concepts, this is a fun way to bring engineering and simple machines into the classroom.

novel-engineering-example

Novel Engineering was designed by a group of educators and researchers from the Tufts University Center for Engineering Education and Outreach. Their team has assembled an authentic way to integrate the engineering design process with a clear focus on literacy outcomes. They have created a curated list of books to get teachers started and have also created a teacher planning guide to help you brainstorm learning outcomes and prepare your lesson.

When we are working with students in a workshop setting we will often begin with commonly known fairy tale books and short picture book that we carefully curate for diverse representations. Some of our favorite diverse author/illustrators are Rachel Isadora, Duncan Tonatiuh, Carmen Tafolla, and Yuyi Morales. For more information about diverse fairy tales and picture books, check out our list of novel engineering fairy tale picture book and engineering problem examples and  this list of multicultural fairy tale books.

Novel Engineering Process (adapted from Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach):

  1. Read a book and define problems that the character(s) is/are facing.
    1. Discuss while reading, clarify as needed, identify design constraints.
    2. We created this visual guide handout to help keep designers on task
  2. Examine problems and brainstorm solutions for character client(s):
    1. Novel/Story is context and characters are client. Try to empathize with what they need in their situation.
    2. Make inferences from text, brainstorm solutions, define criteria
    3. Explore types of simple machines and recyclable building ideas to be used in design.
  3. Design solutions and plan the design.
    1. Consider and discuss what materials are needed for the design.
    2. Consider and discuss how the design will work.
    3. Sketch what will the design look like.
    4. Share and discuss designs and criteria/problem.
  4. Create functioning prototypes.
    1. Test it and reflect.
    2. Get feedback during Mid-Design Share Outs with fellow designers.
    3. Reflect on feedback and make notes of changes you make or questions you have.
  5. Improve design
    1. Revise and make design better after feedback and testing.
    2. Make note of changes.
  6. Share final design solution and design process
    1. Show off final solution to peers/audience.

If you’re interested in learning more about Novel Engineering, check out these resources:

Articles about Novel Engineering:

Research about Novel Engineering:

Sewable Wrist Cuff with Metal Snap Switch

Sewable soft circuits are a unique way to explore electronics and fashion. Using conductive stainless steel thread, you can sew circuits that power lights in unique ways. When you add a metal snap, you can create a switch to turn the circuit on and off, which conserves battery power and can also create unique interactive effects. This tutorial is inspired by Leah Buechley’s e-textile activities located in Sew Electric.

GATHER MATERIALS: (Vendors – Sparkfun, Adafruit, Amazon)

  • LED lights with resistors
  • battery (3 volt CR2032 coin size)
  • conductive thread (stainless steel thread)
  • scissors
  • sewing needle (self-threading needles work best)
  • felt fabric
  • sewable metal snaps (male and female ends that fit together)
  • assorted sewing notions (fabric pencils, buttons, scrap fabric, sequins, regular sewing thread, etc.)

PART ONE – PLAN THE CIRCUIT:

  1. Draw on paper to plan your design. Indicate placement for the battery and LED light and where the conductive thread will connect the components.
    1. Remember you will use one piece of conductive thread to connect “+” sides and a separate piece to connect “-” sides. Think about the metal snaps as being “+” and “-” components as well because when they touch they will complete the circuit path in order to power the LED light.
    2. Do not cross the positive and negative lines of conductive thread.
    3. Consider how you can use regular thread to complete non-conductive aspects of your design.
  2. Lay out your materials.
  3. Test batteries and LED light to ensure they work.

THINK ABOUT: How can the design use as little conductive thread as possible and still maintain a balance of conductivity and aesthetics?

PART TWO – MAKE THE FABRIC BATTERY POUCH: (*Note: You can purchase battery holders but they are usually too expensive to use for large group activities.)

  1. Cut two squares of fabric (slightly larger than battery).
  2. Sew a small circle of conductive thread in center of each square (about ¼ or ½ size of battery).
  3. Use regular thread to stitch three sides of squares into a pouch (leaving one side open for access).
  4. Test to make sure battery fits. Make sure battery is accessible for replacement. Used batteries cannot be thrown in regular trash and must be disposed of properly.

THINK ABOUT: How much conductive thread is needed to ensure maximum power from the battery pouch? Will the battery pouch be placed on the inside (non-viewable) side of the cuff or appear on the outside (viewable) side of the cuff?

PART THREE – SEW THE CIRCUIT:

  1. Mark the longer “+” lead of the LED light(s) with Sharpie marker.
  2. Coil resistor ends of LED light(s) into sewable circles.
  3. Sew components onto fabric. Remember to use separate pieces of conductive thread for “+” and “-” connections. Don’t forget that the metal snaps will act as your on/off switch and one will need to be sewn on the outside visible side of cuff and the other sewn on the inside hidden side of the cuff.
  4. Secure ends with hot glue.

THINK ABOUT: How can you insulate the conductive thread without compromising the aesthetics of the design? Is the cuff comfortable and functional for everyday wear?

EXPERIMENT CONSIDERATIONS:

  • How many LEDs can you power with one battery? What other types of circuit designs can you use to power more than one component?
  • What other conductive materials can you use to make the sewable circuit interactive or modular?

Basic Sewable Circuit

Combine a battery and LED light with conductive thread to make a basic sewable soft circuit on felt.

GATHER MATERIALS: (Vendors – Sparkfun, Adafruit, Amazon)

  • LED lights with resistors
  • battery (3 volt CR2032 coin size)
  • conductive thread (stainless steel thread)
  • scissors
  • round-nose pliers (to coil ends of LED resistors)
  • sewing needle (self-threading needles work best)
  • felt fabric
  • assorted sewing notions (fabric pencils, buttons, scrap fabric, sequins, regular sewing thread, etc.)

PART ONE – PLAN THE BASIC SOFT CIRCUIT:

  1. Draw on paper to plan your design. Indicate placement for the battery and LED light and where the conductive thread will connect the components.
    1. Remember you will use one piece of conductive thread to connect “+” sides and a separate piece to connect “-” sides.
    2. Do not cross the positive and negative lines of conductive thread.
    3. Consider how you can use regular thread to complete non-conductive aspects of your design.
  2. Lay out your materials.
  3. Test batteries and LED light to ensure they work.

THINK ABOUT: How can the design use as little conductive thread as possible and still maintain a balance of conductivity and aesthetics?

PART TWO – MAKE THE FABRIC BATTERY POUCH: (There are sewable battery holders that you can purchase, but they are often too expensive to use with large groups.)

  1. Cut two squares of fabric (slightly larger than battery).
  2. Sew a small circle of conductive thread in center of each square (about ¼ or ½ size of battery).
  3. Use regular thread to stitch three sides of squares into a pouch (leaving one side open for access).
  4. Test to make sure battery fits. Make sure battery is accessible for replacement. Used batteries cannot be thrown in regular trash and must be disposed of properly.

THINK ABOUT: How much conductive thread is needed to ensure maximum power from the battery pouch?

PART THREE – SEW THE BASIC CIRCUIT:

  1. Mark the longer “+” lead of the LED light(s) with Sharpie marker.
  2. Coil resistor ends of LED light(s) into sewable circles.
  3. Sew components onto fabric. Remember to use separate pieces of conductive thread for “+” and “-” connections.
  4. Secure ends with hot glue.

THINK ABOUT: How can you insulate the conductive thread without compromising the aesthetics of the design?

EXPERIMENT CONSIDERATIONS:

  • How can you create an on/off switch to save the battery power?
  • How many LEDs can you power with one battery? What other types of circuit designs can you use to power more than one component?
  • How can you use more fabric and conductive thread to create a switch that turns the circuit on and off?
  • What other conductive materials can you use to make the sewable circuit interactive?

Cardboard Arcades

A few years ago, a young boy took the world by storm with his inspiring cardboard arcade, Caine’s Arcade. Now, many people are joining in the fun by creating their own cardboard arcades. Whether they are collaborative efforts or just made to be tabletop fun, cardboard arcades are a great way to upcycle everyday materials and merge storytelling and simple machines. According to one of our favorite online video game design tools, Gamestar Mechanic, there are five elements of game design:

  1. Space: The look and feel of a game from the design of its environment.
  2. Components: The parts of the game, such as characters, mazes, enemies, etc.
  3. Mechanics: The actions in the game, such as jumping and collecting.
  4. Goals: The players complete tasks in order to achieve points and win the game.
  5. Rules: The guide and instructions for how the game should be played.

Whether designing digital video games or non-digital cardboard games, these 5 elements of game design are needed to create games that are engaging and fun. Think about the games that you see when you walk into Chuck E. Cheese’s or other arcade settings. You are immediately drawn to games with bright colors but you might be hesitant to waste a token on a game that doesn’t look like fun or make sense. Some times it’s best to start discussing the 5 elements of game design by looking at simple cardboard arcade game examples (Pinball Game, Foosball Game, Plinko, Pachinko, Cardboard Skeeball). We like to have our own tabletop examples available for students to examine, which allows them to really discuss the 5 elements of game design and to gain hands-on exploration of the simple machines that make the games work. Once they talk about successful and unsuccessful game elements, they can delve in deeper to the examples to see how they are made and talk about how they could recreate their own versions. Then we give our students the following open-ended challenge (note: We do cardboard arcades as a culminating project after our students have completed some hands-on cardboard construction with simple machines):

Design Challenge: Keeping in mind the 5 elements of game design, use upcycling materials to build your own arcade game that fits on a tabletop and has at least one simple machine.

  1. Sketch ideas and write about how simple machines and the 5 elements of game design will be used.
  2. Share with the group and discuss.
  3. Post-it Note Feedback: Everyone gives feedback to each other by using a post-it to write one thing you like and one suggestion for improvement (has to be actionable).
  4. Build!!!!! Inspire the students to really consider how they can transform the recyclable materials to create added functionality and challenge.
  5. User Testing: In groups of 3, students will test each other’s games and provide feedback on the 5 elements.
  6. Redesign (as needed)
  7. Play! A classroom arcade can be done in many ways. Whether its simply an hour of free-play or opening the arcade up to another classroom or a friends and family arcade night, letting the students share their arcade creations with others is priceless. Our kids have even gone so far as to create their own tickets and prizes!

Other Resources to Consider:

Cardboard Catapult Levers

Who doesn’t love the Angry Birds game? With the swipe of you finger on a touch screen you can sling silly little bird creatures toward teetering towers and watch them crumble as you earn precious points. These Angry Bird slingshots are modern day catapults, which are a simple machine called a lever. Catapults were the height of military sophistication back in the medieval age. These contraptions helped warriors to easily throw large heavy rocks at their enemies over great distances. (For background on simple machines, please read our previous post about ways to introduce the idea of simple machines and how you can “upcycle” everyday materials you already have access to.)

Almost any object can become a lever when it is rests upon or rotates around a fulcrum. By placing an object (load or resistance) on one side and applying pressure (force or effort) on the other side, the lever presses against or rotates around the fulcrum and moves the load. There are three classes of levers which depend upon the placement of the fulcrum and force (learn more about levers here on BrainPop). We like to demonstrate the most recognizable lever, a seesaw, using a paint stick stirrer (lever) and an empty toilet paper tube (fulcrum). When the fulcrum is placed in the middle of the lever you can apply gentle force to one side and watch it raise the load from the other side. If the fulcrum is moved away from the middle of the lever it alters the amount of force needed to move the load. If a lot of force is applied it turns our lever into a launcher. You can glue a plastic soda cap to one end of the paint stirrer stick and launch cotton balls or pom-poms into the air to demonstrate. This PBS Kids video is a another quick way to demonstrate a basic lever.

Levers can be even more fun when you create additional force by adding a spring, which is what truly gives a catapult lever its power. There are many types of catapult designs that range in complexity. There is even a group of people who make their own catapults to launch pumpkins each year (watch the Science Channel video here). You can create your own powerful tabletop catapult using a pencil as a lever, a twisted rubber band spring, and a sturdy box as your fulcrum (based on this tutorial by Lorriane at Ikat Bag). Let’s get ready to launch!

Gather Materials:

  • Medium-sized sturdy box for the base
  • Small cardboard box (matchbox, section of egg carton or scrap cardboard to make launching basket)
  • Thick rubber band (needs to be strong enough to be used as a spring)
  • Pencil (or wooden dowel rod)
  • Toothpicks (or wooden dowel rod cut to two pieces about 3″ each)
  • Pom-Poms (the load)
  • Scissors (or xacto knife)
  • Tape (masking tape or duct tape)
  • Optional decorative elements (markers, paint, feathers, etc.)
  • Consider using a yard stick on the floor to measure distance

Make It:

  1. Tape the basket to the end of the pencil. You can use a section of an egg carton, a matchbox, or scrap cardboard. (This is the basket to hold your load and the pencil is the lever or arm of your catapult.)
  2. Stand the box tall and remove one side of your box. (This will allow you to work inside of the box.)
  3. Cut or fold a notch into the top of the box. (Your pencil lever will rest against this notch later.)
  4. Cut a small slit in the middle of both sides of the box. The small slits should line up with the notch you cut/folded into the top of the box. (You will attach your rubber band spring here later.)
  5. Thread the rubber band through the small slits on the two sides of the box. Secure the rubberband with toothpicks or wooden dowels on the outside of the box. Make sure your rubber band is sturdy. If it is too loose it will not work very well. (This will become your rubber band spring that will provide resistance to your pencil lever later.)
  6. Twist the rubberband in the opposite direction that you want your pencil lever to launch. Slide the end of your pencil lever in between the two strands of twisted rubber band.
  7. Hold the box with one hand while you use the other hand to pull the lever down to the table and release. The lever should swing to the top of the box and rest in your cut/folded notch.
  8. Practice launching cotton balls and discuss the variables of the catapult:
    1. Remember that the twisted tension of the rubber band is what generates the force.
    2. The direction that you twist the rubber band is opposite of the direction you want to launch.
    3. The height of the pencil lever impacts your angle and distance.

Activities:

  • Record your observations while launching different materials (i.e. cotton balls, pom-poms, wadded piece of paper). Consider measuring distance, angle, and speed.
  • With two teams, build your own cardboard Medieval castle to protect your catapults and see how many times you can infiltrate the other team’s castle in 1 minute.
  • Use pom-poms to create your own Angry Birds and use them to knock down cardboard box towers.

Design Experiments:

  • What happens if you make a longer lever?
  • What happens if you make a deeper notch in the top of the box?
  • What happens if you use a tighter rubber band?

Want to learn more? Check out these resources:

Balloon-Powered Vehicles

Balloons are super fun to play with. Almost every kid has blown up a balloon, let it go, and giggled as it chaotically flies to the ground. Though this is a common experience for kids, rarely have they discussed it in terms of the science behind it (when the air rushes to escape the balloon it causes thrust and propulsion similar to a rocket). When you attach the balloon to something that can attempt to control it’s path and that is when you can begin to see the true power and energy of the simple air that they put into the balloon (watch this video that compares balloons and rockets for more info).

Using the simple power of the balloon, you can easily construct a moving vehicle using simple machine wheel and axles. For background on this, please read our previous post about ways to introduce the idea of simple machines and how you can “upcycle” everyday materials you already have access to. Combining the power of the balloon and the movement of the wheel and axles, you can turn almost anything into a moving vehicle (i.e. small boxes, plastic soda bottles, berry cartons, etc.). We like to begin with building a very basic balloon-powered car to ensure that everyone successfully creates functioning wheel and axle combinations. Then we like to open up the challenge to allow them to choose any recyclable materials they want and build an open-ended balloon-powered car of their choice. The open-ended challenge provides a great opportunity to discuss design considerations and makes for very unique classroom drag races. Both activities are outlined below.

MAKE THE BASIC BALLOON-POWERED CAR

Gather Materials:

  • Balloons
  • Cardboard (you will need 3″x6″ for each base and reserve scraps for the wheels)
  • Tape (strong tape like Duct Tape works best)
  • Rulers
  • Pencils
  • Scissors (Xacto knives or box cutters optional)
  • Plastic drinking straws
  • Bamboo skewer sticks
  • Plastic soda bottle caps
  • Optional decorative elements (markers, paint, feathers, etc.)
  • Place tape on the floor to create a racetrack. Consider using a yard stick alongside to show distance for the students to compare.

Make It: (based on this Sick Science video tutorial)

  1. Create a cardboard base that is 3″x6″.
  2. Measure and cut two 3″ pieces of straw.
  3. Tape the 3″ straw pieces to the bottom of the 3″x6″ cardboard base. These will hold your axles.
  4. Cut off the end of one balloon.
  5. Place the balloon over the end of a (new) straw and tape it to create an airtight connection.
  6. Tape the straw to the top of the cardboard base. Be sure that you do not tape the balloon because it needs to expand and contract.
  7. Measure and cut two 4″ pieces of bamboo skewer. (Be careful as you cut them with scissors.) These are your axles.
  8. Place the 4″ bamboo skewer pieces inside the 3″ straw pieces on the bottom of the cardboard base.
  9. Use a plastic soda cap to trace and cut 4 circles onto scrap cardboard. These will be your wheels.
  10. Use the leftover bamboo skewer stick to carefully poke one hole in the center of each of your 4 cardboard wheels.
  11. Attach the cardboard wheels to the axles.
  12. “Fuel up” your racer by inflating your balloon. Carefully pinch the straw to hold the air until you are ready for your car to go.
  13. Place your balloon-powered car on the ground and let it go.
  14. Discuss:
    1. Is anyone’s car faster than the others? Why?
    2. How do the wheel and axles function to move the car?
    3. How far does it go? What could make it go farther?
    4. What type of path does it travel? What could make it go straighter?
    5. What happens if you change the size of the wheels?
    6. What happens if you change the chassis (cardboard base) by using a different material (i.e. a soda bottle) or change the angle of the chassis?
    7. What happens if you change the length of the exhaust (straw connected to balloon)? How does that impact the car’s thrust?

MAKE THE OPEN-ENDED BALLOON-POWERED CAR

Gather Materials:

  • Balloons
  • Tape, glue
  • Rulers
  • Pencils
  • Scissors (Xacto knives or box cutters optional)
  • Bamboo skewer sticks, toothpicks, and/or round wooden dowel craft sticks
  • Plastic drinking straws
  • Miscellaneous recyclable materials (plastic soda bottles and caps, yogurt cups, small boxes, empty toilet paper tubes, etc)
  • Optional decorative elements (markers, paint, feathers, etc.)

Make It:

  1. Encourage students to base their design on what they learned from the basic balloon-powered car above. Ask them to consider:
    1. How does weight play a role in speed? distance? path?
    2. How could you add more power? (more balloons, etc.)
    3. How could you design the car for increased speed? (drag racing)
    4. How could you design the car for increased distance? (“fuel” economy)
    5. How could you design the car for increased strength? (demolition derby)
  2. Allow students to design their own balloon-powered car using any materials available (recyclable options plus bamboo skewers, etc.). Encourage students to choose varied materials for their bases in order to have variety. You want students to strive for creating the fastest car but you can also have a variety of “rewards” for different features and abilities.

Activities:

  • Create race tracks and compare:
    • speed,
    • performance, and
    • durability.

Want to learn more? Check out these resources:

Cardboard Automata Simple Machines

Simple machines are super awesome and easy to make with everyday materials. Read our previous post about ways to introduce the idea of simple machines and how you can “upcycle” everyday materials you already have access to. One of our favorite simple machines to make is the automata sculpture, which uses cams and cranks to move a sculptural element. This activity allows the students to experience the components of the simple machine while also personalizing their creation to tell their own story. Having a few examples of different automata components is helpful, but there are also great videos that show the inner workings of these unique sculptures (consider watching this video montage of an automata museum display or this CBS special on automata with connections to the popular book and movie, Hugo).

Gather Materials:

  • Cardboard boxes and scraps
  • Scissors
  • Tape
  • Hot glue
  • Pipe cleaners
  • Markers
  • Small found objects for added weight if needed

Make It:

The Tinkering Studio has a great set of instructions for facilitating cardboard automata with children, including best practices considerations and ways of tying the sculpture to storytelling. We recommend letting the students experiment by building a generic automata with a simple cam follower and crank mechanism that will allow them to switch out different cams (circles, ovals, etc.). This allows them to really get hands-on experience with the different movement possibilities, which can further spark their design and let them experiment with how they can animate a scene or character to tell a story. These creations can be a great writing prompt to spark their storytelling imaginations or they can be a culminating activity to visualize an existing story they have written or previously read.

Design Experiments to Consider:

  • Try adding multiple cams for additional animated characters.
  • Try adding different components to create sounds related to the story.

Want to learn more? Check out these resources:

  • The Kids’ Book of Simple Machines: Cool Projects and Activities that Make Science Fun by Kelly Doudna
  • Gear Up! Marvelous Machine Projects by Keith Good
  • Looking Closely at Cardboard Automata (1st grade at Mount Vernon Private School)

 

Modular Origami Paper Puzzles

Paper is such a great medium. You can find it almost anywhere. With a couple of quick folds you can transform it from a fragile flat piece into a strong 3D object. Most people are familiar with origami, the art of folding paper – if not, learn more here with a Scholastic Origami Math lesson. But fewer people are familiar with modular origami, which is a technique that involves creating folded pieces that can be connected together to create larger 3D models. For example, you can fold a piece of paper like this to create one module:

and combine 6 modules to create a cube

or combine 12 modules to create an octahedron

or 30 modules to create an icosahedron.

Grab some thin paper and follow this Math Craft tutorial to create your own.

Want to learn more? Check out these resources:

Popsicle Stick Mathematical Sculptures

IMAG4270You know what we love to build things with? Everyday objects, like popsicle sticks! Inexpensive, light-weight, and versatile, these are an easy way to construct a variety of things with tape or glue and can easily be decorated with marker, paper, or string. From bridges to buildings, creatures to words, you can really build almost anything with them. We like to get geeky and these materials and build mathematical sculptures. These are not only a great hands-on mathematical learning tool for exploring abstract concepts (physically scaffolding from 2D shapes to 3D forms), but can also become decorative sculptural lighting elements. Though you can make almost any angled shape or form with popsicle sticks, we recommend starting with building a cube first then working on building up to an icosahedron, which has 20 faces (each face is an equilateral triangle), 30 edges, and 12 vertices (5 edges meet at each vertex).

Gather Materials:

  • (at least) 60 popsicle sticks
  • hot glue gun
  • hot glue sticks
  • tape
  • optional decorations, paper, transparency film, markers, buttons, string, etc.
  • battery operated tea light

Make It:

  • Follow this great tutorial to build an icosahedron.

Design Experiment Considerations:

  • Cover each face with different material and experiment with shadow play.
  • Hypothesize how much strong it would take to wrap the entire sculpture.

Want to learn more? Check out these resources:

LED Binder Clip Bling

LED binder clip bling-ringBecause we just LOVE creating simple LED circuits, so we couldn’t help ourselves when we stumbled upon the idea of the LED Binder Clip Bling tutorial created by Jessica Henricks on the MAKE: magazine website (view her original tutorial here). Using simple materials, you can create an LED circuit with an easy on/off switch (the binder clip) to conserve the battery and transform it into wearable art.

Here is our modified one-page tutorial handout: http://tinyurl.com/LEDbling (shared GoogleDoc)

Consider adding a magnet and turning it into electronic graffiti (Make Your Own LED Throwie).