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Engineering the New Year

Engineering the New Year

Illustration by Joy Smoker

Engineering education expert shares ideas for family-friendly activities

The holidays are almost over, and January is rapidly approaching. We all know what that means — it’s time for New Year’s resolutions.

And it’s OK if you want to repeat last year’s resolutions to eat healthier foods, go to the gym three times a week, and lose 10 pounds.

But why not also resolve to plan some activities that will get your kids interested in engineering?

“Make a New Year’s resolution to go to new places and think about the world from an engineering perspective,” says Melissa Jurist, director of K-12 education in the College of Engineering at the University of Delaware. “It will be not only educational but also fun for the whole family.”

UDaily talked with Jurist to get some suggestions for places to visit and ideas for follow-up discussions and activities to do at home. For a quick look, click here.

Mechanical engineering and factory tours

“There’s something magical about seeing large machines, materials and people coming together to make common objects,” Jurist says. “But we’re often unaware of the machines involved in getting the job done.”

Some of Jurist’s favorite factory tours are the Herr’s Snack Factory in Pennsylvania (free), the U.S. Mint facilities in Pennsylvania and Colorado (free), and Harley-Davidson plants in Wisconsin, Missouri and Pennsylvania (admission fee). She advises checking ahead for information about fees, reservations, ages, appropriate clothing, and so on.

Follow-up discussions can focus on the design of machines and robots that perform specialized tasks, or talk about the history of the product’s design: What is the origin of, for example, the pretzel? How has it changed?

For an activity at home, design your own machine. Using found objects like straws, rubber bands, and wood, can you make something that can drop a ball onto a plate? Turn a page? Let your imagination run wild….

Click here to find a factory tour in your state.

Environmental engineering and wastewater processing plants

Environmental engineers do a wide range of things, from designing landfills and materials to keep contaminants out of our drinking water to studying tsunamis.

Want to get a kid’s attention — offer to take them to see the ‘place where all the poop goes,’” Jurist says.

Although some of these plants have not been open to the public since 9/11, many have videos or simulations. Visit one online and then talk about how the plant “figures out” what is good and what needs to be removed. According to Jurist, you can also call and ask questions — a good skill for kids to have.

For a follow-up activity, pour cooking oil, coffee grinds or tea leaves, and some dirt into a large pitcher of water. Place a funnel, lined with a coffee filter, over another pitcher of equal size. Pour the water through. Is everything cleaned? Now add some sand inside a coffee filter. What does that do?

Electrical engineering and sensors

Sensors are just about everywhere today.

Go to your local big-box store. As you walk in, how do the doors open? Motion sensors.  Go to the electronics department. Want to know what’s inside cell phones? A sensor for sound.

Have you ever stood in front of a refrigerated case and been covered in cold mist? A temperature sensor lets you know that the doors are glass and urges you to look in instead of opening the door and letting all the cold air out.

“You can walk around and find many more, which is part of the fun,” Jurist says. “Think check-out conveyor belts or ‘the Clapper.’”

Discussions can start by focusing on the sensors naturally occurring in our bodies and work up to electronic replacements for our sensory organs. What information does a sensor have to take in to do its job? 

For a follow-up activity, design and make a weather station that can sense temperature and other indicators of weather events.

Biomedical engineering and fish farms

Biomedical engineers use animals to figure out what might be happening in human systems. Doing this requires making comparisons between species and understanding their development.

Take a trip to a fish hatchery, a farm, or an aquarium. Local hatcheries can be found in many places such as state facilities (search on hatchery and your state’s name). One of Jurist’s favorites is the State Lobster Hatchery on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.

Questions such as the following can launch a discussion: What are the key activities of all living things? What differs between a fish or lobster and you? Why do living things develop at different rates and in different numbers? For example, a fish may have hundreds of offspring, while we have only a few.

To follow up, pick an activity of living such as movement. Keep a journal of all of the various ways that different living things, seen in a normal day, achieve this.  How do they differ? A fish has fins while a dog has legs — what part of their anatomy makes up their means of movement?

Computer and information science and algorithms

An algorithm is a step-by-step procedure for solving a problem or accomplishing a task, and computer programs are basically elaborate algorithms.

Visit your local supermarket to create your own algorithms. Use the store layout to create a “fastest-possible” route. Consider the order of purchase — frozen things last, right? Create an algorithm to select an ingredient for a recipe, like chili. You have to sort through beans to find the kidney beans, then sort the kidney beans to find the cheapest ones or the organic ones.

Discussion can focus on how the steps you take each morning are an algorithm. If you do everything to get ready for work or school in the bathroom, that’s an efficiency algorithm. What happens if you remove one of the rules—for example, checking the weather before going out — from one of your daily algorithms? How does that change your day?

For a follow-up activity, write down the steps involved in a daily decision on cards and then rearrange the order. Does that impact the decision? For example, if you write down all the steps in deciding what to make for dinner but then switch the order of the steps, do things change? What additional “rules” might help with the decision?

Bringing it all together

“One thing that will become evident with these activities is the cross-over and overlap of engineering fields,” Jurist says. “For example, sensors are important both for machines that create products in a factory and for those in wastewater processing plants.”

“Keying children into the fact that engineers work with each other, and with other scientists, is another important concept.”

About Melissa Jurist

Melissa Jurist is director of K-12 education in the College of Engineering at the University of Delaware. She works closely with faculty to bring their research concepts into K-12 activities that are grounded in current educational theory as well as engaging and enjoyable for the K-12 community. She also designs and implements programming for various K-12 outreach programs, including summer camps and high school internships, with the goal of increasing the participation of K-12 students and teachers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Jurist, who has a bachelor’s degree from New York University in psychology with a focus on math and science cognition, started her career researching and developing curriculum for Sesame Workshop, creators of the PBS television show Sesame Street. She then worked with academic research teams at California Institute of Technology on a National Science Foundation evaluation of how children learn through hands-on science.

Jurist can be reached at 302-831-6316 or mjurist@udel.edu.