2009 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition. Austin, TX. Session 1125.

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Hands-on learning experiences and interactive learning environments can be effective in teaching K-12 students. Design, in essence, is an interactive, hands-on experience. Engineering design can be taught in the classroom using innovative hands-on projects, such as designing and building serve to teach design, promote creativity, and provide opportunities for hands-on problem solving, in addition to giving students experience working in cooperative teams. In turn, these experiences could encourage students to consider future careers in engineering and science.

This paper explores findings from data collected during the authors’ recent experience teaching a group of fifteen 4th – 6th grade students enrolled in a 6-week Saturday talent development program to design and build Rube Goldberg machines. The purpose of the study was to investigate the effectiveness of teaching an engineering design to students enrolled in a talent development program, the use of teamwork and its influence in the design process, and how a design process aligns with the way kids approach design.

A scaffolded engineering design process was used to guide teams of 3-4 students through the project. Students took on predefined roles in order to promote teamwork. Most of the data collected were a regular part of the work subjects produced for the class, which included written descriptions of the designs, posters that include drawings of their designs, and photographs and video of the machines constructed. Additionally, the investigators maintained journals during the class, and evaluations were used to measure the students’ overall perceptions of the class. A grounded theory approach was used to determine both aspects of the course that worked well and areas for improvement, in addition to surprises encountered along the way. Using this approach allowed our conclusions to inductively emerge from the data.

In this paper, we will discuss the educational implications of the study. Results indicate that these students have difficulty working in teams, applying a design process, and demonstrating sufficient maturity to focus and manage their own schedule toward an abstract goal. This project is important for teachers considering implementation of a hands-on project like this in a middle school environment, in engineering and science talent development programs, and for professors interested in design experiences that their future students might have.


Robin Adams


ASEE, 2009, Rube Goldberg

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