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Windmill project teaches kids science, math, engineering

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Frank Schultz
July 3, 2013

— A windmill made of a milk carton, string, Popsicle sticks and other odds and ends stood in front of the fan. The three students who built the machine waited in anticipation.

Teacher Carrie Mergen switched on the fan.

The windmill's blades moved not a bit.

"What's wrong?" Mergen asked.

That was the scene Tuesday morning at Lincoln Elementary School. The summer school class is designed to introduce engineering to students as young as these going-into-second-graders.

"Turn the blades a little bit," suggested student Zach Visgar.

With the blades turned at an angle to the wind, the blades began to spin on their own.

"Awesome!" Zach said.

The next test: Could the windmill do work?

The windmill powered a wooden-dowel axle attached to a string with a paper cup attached. As the axle spun, the string wound around the axle, raising the cup.

How much weight could the windmill raise? Kids put 1-inch metal washers in the cup. The record, set by the going-into-third-graders in the previous class, was 51 washers.

Zach's team started with five. Then 10.

"If it's going to be 10, how many washers do we add to the cup?" Mergen asked.

"Five!" said team member Mariah Schmidt.

The kids did the math without thinking about doing math.

"Oh, it's working! Let's do 20 now," enthused the third team member, Rhianna Waite.

By the time they got to 40, Rhianna was jumping up and down with excitement: "It did it!"

At 45, the string broke.

The student went back to their table for repairs. Rhianna's excitement grew: "Let's do 50! Fifty! Fifty! Fifty!"

They eventually broke the record, getting to 65 before the windmill stalled. To be fair, they benefited from the work the older students, who had come up with the idea of a bigger, plastic cup that could hold more washers.

Zach pumped both fists in the air at the triumph, while Mariah and Rhianna were both jumping up and down.

"So were you an engineer today?" summer school teacher Amy DeGarmo asked Rhianna.

"Yes," Rhianna replied, still flush with excitement.

DeGarmo didn't let it go at that. She led Rhianna to think about what the team had done.

"You did some things to the windmill, you—what's that word?" DeGarmo asked.

"Improved it!" Rhianna said.

The windmills are part of a curriculum called Engineering is Elementary, developed by Boston's Museum of Science.

Dana Simmons, who helped write the grant that paid for the curriculum, said the lessons were used in Lincoln's after-school program for two trimesters last school year and will be used in the future.

The curriculum includes a storybook about children in other countries who solve problems using technologies, so reading and social studies are included. In past units, students have designed water filters, alarm circuits and knee braces.

When these students continue to middle school and high school, they will be able to continue pursuing engineering through Project Lead the Way classes, Simmons said.

The student-teacher ratio is one that teachers don't enjoy in regular school-year classes.

At one point, Principal Shawn Galvin came in. Along with Simmons, that made for five adults in the room to help 12 students. Simmons said normally it's two teachers and an aide, Heidi Schroeder, with the kids.

DeGarmo and Mergen were both trained in the curriculum and seem enthusiastic about it.

Mergen said summer school is nothing like past years, when the emphasis was more about the fun than serious learning. But that's not to say the kids aren't having fun this year.

"They love it. It's really exciting," Mergen said.

The curriculum requires students to learn new words, use measuring devices and learn how engineering design works.

It also shows students how to apply what they read to real life, Mergen said.

"It really helps them to think critically and solve problems on their own," DeGarmo said.

Lincoln is one of several Janesville summer school sites that are incorporating science, math and technology this year, said Summer School Director Steve Huth.

Huth said the changes have proved so popular that attendance has increased, and he has heard of families that changed camping plans so their children wouldn't miss a day.

In the next three to five years, all elementary schools will use the curriculum in summer school, Huth said.



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