This summer I got to sit in on a workshop that completely captured the attention of its students and was a great example of experiential learning.
When asked if the day was what they expected, twenty NYC high school students said it was not. When asked what had they expected, they agreed that they thought the day would be full of lectures about robots, reverse engineering, and the Internet of Things (IoT). What’s amazing is that these twenty students volunteered to spend a beautiful summer day in July inside Cornell Tech listening to what might have been six straight hours of talk. Luckily what they got was completely different from what they expected.
Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel, partnered with Cornell Tech to offer what could indeed be described as a full day of robots, reverse engineering, and IoT. But what there wasn’t much of was talk. After a brief introduction to “Meet Smart Robotics & Digital Making: Education for life in the robotic world” by Igor Verner, the twenty students broke off into two groups. I followed the group that was spending their morning in the MakerLAB.
Almost as soon as the students sat down in the MakerLAB, the slides flashed onto the screen, introducing them to engineering design, making, and the difference between forward and reverse engineering. But the lecture portion was over before you knew it. The Technion approach is to implement experiential learning, the process of making meaning from direct experience through reflection on doing. In Forward Engineering, an engineer discovers the problem, defines needs of the stakeholders, gathers information, explores possible technical solutions, creates a detailed design, and then tests and iterates. In Reverse Engineering, the engineer investigates an existing product, researches through dismantling, and then builds a system through fixing or innovating.
The students were given a PC fan and told to carefully disassemble it, study it, research it, and document it. Moshe Greenholts, the workshop leader, told them that if they saw a label on their fan, to use that information to research that fan online. If they had questions, they should try to discover the answer through exploration.
After twenty minutes the group reconvened and discussed, based on what they had learned, how a PC fan worked, and what parts make up the system. The conversation moved on to blades, blades of a helicopter, and those of a wind turbine. Why would you need a particular number of blades? Why more than one? Why should blades be longer or shorter? This was a fast-paced workshop, and Moshe had lots of information about blade aerodynamics, fan laws, and fan airflows. But in this particular workshop, activity focused more on the hands-on experience.
The next part of the day, another 20 minute interval, gave the students an opportunity to learn how to design blades in Tinkercad. They first followed a tutorial, How to Design the Best Wind Farm Blade in Tinkercad, but ultimately created their own designs, which they each were able to print on an Ultimaker 3 printer.
After a 20 minute 3D print came circuits. Moshe explained how a brushless motor works before asking the students to identify the components of their PC fans: the magnet, four coils, and the hall sensor attached to the stator. He then challenged them to use an Arduino to measure the RPMs of their brushless motors.
The class devoted the last portion of the workshop to use the PC fan to power a vehicle. All students had access to 3D printed wheels, straws, and popsicle sticks. With more time, the students might have taken greater advantage of 3D printing, using 3D printers to accelerate their experiments with the chassis, wheel, and fan designs.
Overall this hands-on engineering exercise was great. The students were completely engaged. I could see this as a workshop spanning two days, or even as a project in the classroom spanning several periods. With enough time, students could really experiment, research, and explore. Expand this activity, maintain the intensity, encourage more exploration, and then wrap up with two presentations. One to show off the students’ original solutions. And a second to demonstrate the process through which they iterated their designs based on feedback and gaining inspirations from observing other solutions.