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Children get hands-on engineering experiences at ASU DiscoverE Day

two young students building house of cards
April 29, 2015

Ashley Hayden knotted together a series of thin rubber bands to attach to a small white paper cup.

“We could probably put tape on the end,” said Ashlyn Hudson, inspecting Hayden’s work.

Teammate Mikala Buckwalter had gone off in a different direction, deciding that a paper plate makes a better “scoop” than a cup.

“Remember, we are supposed to combine our ideas,” Annie Stoddard blurted out.

Their mission: construct a device from everyday materials to rescue “Rover,” a stuffed toy animal, from a “sewer,” a small plastic bin.

The three girls, along with classmate Daniella Cruz, were among a group of third and fourth graders from Granville Elementary in Prescott Valley who had come to Arizona State University recently to participate in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering’s DiscoverE Day.

“We want the kids to experience what it is like to be an engineer. To think creatively, design and test their ideas. We want them to learn that failure is not a bad thing, and that it is part of the process that can be overcome,” said Trevor Forrey, an ASU undergraduate software engineering student who was running the activity session. “I love sharing the excitement of engineering, because I never knew what it was all about until I came to college.”

Sparking imagination

DiscoverE Day is the premier open house of the Fulton Schools of Engineering – and one of ASU’s largest annual education outreach events – designed to spark youngsters’ interest in the world of engineering and the broad range of career opportunities in the field.

For this fourth year of DiscoverE Day events, ASU hosted close to 2,500 students in third through eighth grades on its Polytechnic and Tempe campuses. The students, teachers and chaperones came from about 100 public, private and charter elementary schools – as well as home school groups.

Students got a look at a diverse array of engineering applications from almost 90 exhibits presented by more than 300 Fulton Schools of Engineering students and staff volunteers, as well as about 25 teacher candidates from ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

The title sponsor this year was the NPL Construction Company, a national leader in pipeline construction and energy distribution systems. Raytheon, the international aerospace and defense systems company, also sponsored DiscoverE Day.

Youngsters saw rudimentary demonstrations of rocketry and robotics, aeronautical and automotive engineering, biomechanical and solar energy technologies.

They used recycled materials to build small cars powered by balloons to learn about the concepts of force and propulsion.

They learned how a basic iPhone app is created and how video games are developed.

They tested their skills at using common materials to build small vehicles or structures that could glide through the air, float on water or bear up under the weight of various objects.

“This is great hands-on learning,” said Lori Garcia, a teacher at Our Lady of Mount Carmel grade school in Tempe. “The kids are super-engaged. They are getting a look at how some of the things they are being taught about in class are applied in the real world.”

Motivating activities

Kino Junior High School in Mesa again sent a large group to DiscoverE Day – about 50 students from the school’s Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program. AVID students are typically representative of groups that have not traditionally pursued college education due to socioeconomic factors, said teacher Rochelle Deriso.

“We come [to DiscoverE Day] every year. It exposes them to college culture. We want to get them here on the campus interacting with college students,” Deriso said. “We want to open doors for them and get them motivated, and these kinds of hands-on experiences help do that.”

Chris Kmetty, who earned his degree in civil engineering at ASU in 1997, said he has seen the outreach event awaken young students’ innate problem-solving talents.

Kmetty, director of signature events for the Fulton Schools of Engineering Alumni Chapter Board, managed one of the interactive activities at this year’s DiscoverE Day.

“You give kids a challenge and they often instinctively see what needs to be done. I think a lot of students get some real insight into engineering out of this,” Kmetty said.

Engineering in action

Teresa Clement, an engineer for Raytheon Missile Systems, a member of the ASU Alumni Association board, and president of the Fulton Schools of Engineering Alumni Chapter Board, has engaged with students at DiscoverE Day for several years.

“It’s really enlightening to see how much they are able to get out of it in only a day, and to watch their excitement when they learn something new,” she said. “You can catch some of them having that ‘aha’ moment when they realize they are seeing math or engineering in action.”

Sort of like what happened to Ashley Hayden and her fellow elementary school students when they were trying to devise ways to rescue “Rover” from the “sewer.”

They were unsuccessful in their mission, but by testing their rescue device they came up with new ideas to make it work better.

Jane Nguyen, an undergraduate in elementary education in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, who was team-teaching with engineering student Trevor Forrey, told Hayden and the other students, “When I asked you at the start, many of you thought you weren’t engineers. But you are. You just went through the engineering process.”

Written by Joe Kullman and Sharon Keeler