The Accidental Engineer

This month's post is guest authored by Shahana Sarkar, Dean of Academics and Community 

When my colleague, Dr. Chris Kinney, invited me to visit one of his engineering classes, I jumped at the chance to observe his class in action. Little did I know that he had no intention of having me watch passively as an observer. Just as he expects of his students, Dr. Kinney expected me to do. I was paired with our Head of School, Crystal Land, and challenged to build a car using only an instruction booklet that was written in micro-font, mostly in Japanese and with some pictures. With the help of the right tools (including our reading glasses) and a nudge (or two) from the teacher, we were able to build a car that moved forward and backward by the end of TWO class periods. While we were able to count the number of sprockets on each of the gears, we weren’t quite able to determine how many times the first gear has to turn to rotate the wheel one revolution when prompted. But, wasn’t that the real objective of the lesson? Not “Can you build a car?” but “Now that you’ve built a car, how does it work?” 

We showed up again to Dr. Kinney’s class a few weeks later and were handed a box of spaghetti and approximately 100 rubber bands and told to build a bridge that would span 50 centimeters and hold the weight of one car (represented by a box of staples in this case). We researched and got to work as Dr. Kinney roamed the room. This time I asked my team (Ms. Land and Ms. Feidelman) how they were feeling. They expressed nervousness, excitement, and gratitude for having been given specific parameters and partners to work with. 

This “quick” design challenge forced us to muster our wits, seek some quick examples from Google, and most importantly--try something. All the bridges were put to the test at the end of the 75 minutes. Each bridge was put across a 50cm opening and had “cars” stacked on it. Ours held 3 cars! As we tested and saw which bridges were successful, which were more successful, and which were the most successful, we redefined what success was and noted the design elements that led to the best bridges. Students (probably not Ms. Land or myself) will spend several weeks in the spring building toothpick (and glue) bridges--and now they are armed with some real experience of what works and what doesn’t. Dr. Kinney will teach them a few more skills about bridge building and then students will have a good amount of time to build a “real” bridge.  

Perhaps what struck me the most about this experience was the role of the teacher. As Dr. K. wandered around the room, he nudged students to ask questions and bring their ideas to the group. He certainly wasn’t there to tell them what to do (despite our begging). Instead, he wanted to make sure that productive learning was taking place. He knew when to push and when to yield (and offer a nugget of wisdom like, “Try bracing it from the bottom.”). In the end, all of the bridges held some weight. Some were heavier, some were lighter, and the best bridge was the one with the lowest weight-to-load ratio (i.e. the lightest and could hold the most weight). We saw 5 or 6 different designs come out of 7 or 8 groups. We laughed--at ourselves and with one another. We competed and egged each other on, but were also all pulling for each other and admiring the good ideas of one another. The students (including a number of my calculus students) were also excited to see me learning/trying/flailing alongside them. And frankly, I think I now know quite a bit about bridges and could confidently hold my own at my next dinner party, even if it happened to be with the Society of Civil Engineers.

  • STEM
  • Teaching & Learning