School News

Student designs put to the test

By Andy Hallman as appeared in the Fairfield Ledger

New Indian School of the Age of Enlightenment’s students learned a thing or two about “creative destruction” Thursday. The day was the culmination of a project that tested the students’ problem-solving skills. The problem facing them was how to protect a one-gallon water jug from being ripped open after falling from a second-story window. Middle school students created a wide variety of apparatuses to cushion the descent of their water jugs. Although only the middle school students participated in the event, the entire school came to witness the falling objects in the school’s courtyard.

The spectacle was all part of Richard Incorvia and Barbara Hays’s “project-based learning.” The idea behind project-based learning is to assign the students tasks that have real-world application. In this instance, the students assumed the role of engineers, trying to shield their precious cargo from a high-speed encounter with a concrete slab. Thursday marked the second year the entire student body has watched “Defenestration Day,” as the event has come to be called. Incorvia had done a similar event for a few years prior in which he substituted eggs for water jugs. However, he found the eggs were small enough and the students ingenious enough to wrap the fragile shells in packaging so thick the eggs never broke. The instructor sought a genuine challenge for the middle-schoolers, and happened upon the one-gallon water jugs.

The students had been building their protective casings ever since school began in late August. They had an opportunity to test their apparatuses and make modifications depending on the result of the trial drops. However, the instructors threw a few wrenches into the works. The students were not allowed to pad the jugs with Styrofoam because it was a mess to clean up. They could not put tape on the jug, either, to prevent the students from simply wrapping the container in yard after yard of duct tape. Perhaps the most onerous regulation from the students’ perspective was they couldn’t do test drops from the second-story window. Instead, they had to settle for dropping their containers from another location not nearly as high. Incorvia said he made this rule to simulate how machines are built to function in environments where they cannot be tested, and therefore must be tested in an environment that is merely an approximation of the real thing. An example would be NASA’s inability to test the rover Curiosity on Mars before sending the device to the Red Planet.

Seventh-grader Pravan Chhaliyil said the project taught him a great deal about forces such as gravity and air pressure. Chhaliyil tested his apparatus four times before Thursday – twice at his house and twice at school. Three of his four tests were successful, as was Thursday’s drop when it really counted. He said he did not ask other students for advice, although he did ask them if they thought his design would work. Chhaliyil used empty pop cans and foam to insulate his water jug. He said his goal was to use nothing but recyclable materials in his apparatus, which he succeeded in doing.

Eighth-grader Hermela Gebremariam put her water jug inside a box, and then put that box inside a bigger box. The smaller box was suspended inside the bigger box with bungee cords. After an unsuccessful test, Gebremariam added another layer of protection – a parachute.

Chaysten Titus, eighth-grader, made a box last year that survived its two-story fall out the window. Titus could have repeated the design this year but he chose to experiment with a new design. This year, Titus’s problem was his box rotated as it fell, meaning it landed on a side that was not padded as well as the bottom and resulted in a cracked and leaky water jug.

Eighth-grader Henry Mason devised an elaborate plan to cushion his water jug with cornstarch and water, which hardens when an object is pressed against it. He would put the jug in a container filled with these two ingredients. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find enough cornstarch, so his design took a different direction. His new idea was to suspend the jug in a net made of duct tape, but which did not adhere to the jug. Below the first net would be a series of nets made of duct tape. He hoped each layer of netting would slow the jug enough to prevent it from crashing into the bottom of the box. One of his trials worked just as he planned with one caveat: the box’s sides blew out. After repairing the sides, Mason was ready to launch his jug Thursday. However, this time the box rotated in mid-air and landed on its side, neutralizing the effect of the netting and cracking open his jug.

Incorvia said he and Hays would give feedback to the students, but would never give them ideas. That was the students’ responsibility.

“They would often ask us, ‘Will this work?’” he said. “We asked them back, ‘How can you find out?’”

He said the project was an opportunity for the students to employ their imagination in creating what are sometimes wild designs.

“Reaching out into the darkness takes courage,” he said. “Some of their ideas are silly, but we encourage all of them because they’re using parts of their brain they’ve never used before.”

The next project the middle school students will tackle is building a black powder rocket complete with a parachute that lands it safely back on Earth.


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