Royal Happenings: Fourth graders try their hand at engineering

From left, fourth graders Katie Fritzke, Leah Gothmann and Maximus Gorlov show how they used their iPads for engineering project involving making and improving boats. (Submitted photo)
From left, fourth graders Katie Fritzke, Leah Gothmann and Maximus Gorlov show how they used their iPads for engineering project involving making and improving boats. (Submitted photo)

By Jennifer Harb

WMES Teacher

It is easy to take for granted all the things that have been engineered for us. The cars that carry us to and from work each day, the phones that allow us to communicate with loved ones near and far, the computer being used to type this very article… These creations and more are the product of someone’s sweat, tears, and dreams.

Engineering is not following directions to find an easy fix to a problem. It is analyzing all angles of a need and coming up with the best solution possible. It is a big job, but it is a job fourth graders at Watertown-Mayer Elementary School were prepared to tackle.

Students were given specific materials earlier this year — masking tape, an index card, a film canister, and an Alka Seltzer tablet — and were instructed to create a boat. Their objective? Engineer a boat that would travel the length of a 4 foot canal.

The unit began with a short video clip on engineering. This video helped students understand the process engineers go through to create and perfect products, providing them with necessary background knowledge and the motivation to put forth full effort.

With the iPad integration this year, fourth grade teachers did a little engineering of their own by incorporating additional technology in their plans. Once students had a general understanding of what engineers do, they followed step-by-step instructions in Keynote (an iPad app) to create their boats. This involved steps such as designing and drawing boats in ScreenChomp (another iPad app) and using the Internet to do research.

Students used the school’s Media Center search engines to learn more about types of boats and characteristics of Alka Seltzer. They used this information to discuss improvements that could be made to their designs and to adapt their boats as needed.  Groups reflected upon this process and video recorded their thoughts using their iPads.

It was challenging for students to create something with little more than a purpose and a list of materials. They worked together, nonetheless, to build their boats, and they were excited when the time came to test them.  Each group stepped up to attempt their first trial and…nothing happened. Not a single boat got to the end of the canal — few moved at all.

Students kept a positive attitude towards their task and were eager to go back to the drawing board. Each group decided on a variable to change. They altered only one thing at a time so they would know what made the difference, should their boat suddenly begin to work.

After a few trials, students slowly figured out how to get their boats to go. This allowed them to gain a firsthand understanding and true appreciation for what it takes to be an engineer.

When asked about the engineering unit, fourth graders had much to say. “Some parts were easy, but other parts were hard,” one fourth grader decided.  She elaborated by saying it was easy to build the boats, but it was hard to design them so they would work.  Another student quickly chimed in, “It was challenging at first because you didn’t know what would work well, but it got easier as you went.”

To complete the unit, students used their iPads to research various types of engineers online.  They discussed the types of products that have been developed by these professionals and analyzed the positive and negative impacts they have had on our world.

Students proved they could skillfully use the process of engineering, and they had fun while doing it. With the determination and creativity these fourth graders put forth, who knows what they might engineer for our world in the future?

Royal Happenings is a weekly feature of the Carver County News. Content is submitted by Watertown-Mayer teachers, staff and students.