The Engineering Design Cycle is Alive and Well in the QUEST Center

Over the past several weeks, the sound of electric cardboard cutters has been an almost constant hum in the QUEST Center. Peering through the windows of our largest design studio, one sees 20 small bodies, each one completely engaged in the very best kind of experiential learning. The teacher is truly the “guide on the side” as her students figure out the answers to all sorts of physical and mechanical challenges.

Fourth graders were recently challenged to design and engineer an original cardboard arcade game as part of their science class with Mrs. Won. Students are required to use at least one simple machine in their game and to include one or more electrical circuits. This is an annual project in fourth grade, and it gets better and better each year. This year, students learned to create their own arcade music for their games with music teacher, Mr. Tupper. For me, this project best exemplifies what we want to teach children to do…to become critical thinkers and creative problem solvers and to apply what they have learned in original ways.

Mrs. Won begins this project by telling the story of Caine’s Arcade and showing her students a video about one real boy’s cardboard arcade in Los Angeles. This nine-year-old boy started his arcade in part because he had little to do during his summer vacation, while hanging out at his dad’s auto parts store. He took his love of arcade games and some left-over boxes and created something marvelous. Caine demonstrates great creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit, and children and adults alike are inspired by his story.

After learning about Caine’s arcade, our fourth-grade students begin researching different types of arcade games and brainstorming their own original versions of these games. They create detailed sketches of their ideas as well as lists of necessary materials to make their visions a reality. They then come to the QUEST Center to begin the engineering process. All shapes and sizes of boxes, tubes and cardboard pieces are at the students’ disposal, as well as lots and lots of packing tape and electric and manual cardboard cutters. In the process of creating their games, students practice many important life skills, such as estimating, measuring, cutting, tearing tape, collaborating with teammates, finding ways to attach different materials and get them to stand upright, etc. Students move through the engineering design cycle many different times during this project, as they tweak and refine their original ideas. They question, uncover new knowledge and ideas, explore, synthesize new information, and test their ideas…multiple times throughout the project. This endeavor is a wonderful example of what the QUEST Center was designed to provide…a place for hands-on learning experiences where students are stretched to learn new things by doing.

At a time when so many children are over-scheduled after school and even during weekends and vacations, there is little to no time for them to sit quietly and imagine, and wonder, and explore and tinker and test their ideas. If we want our students to become the inventors and innovators who will solve future problems, we need to continue to provide learning experiences such as this cardboard arcade project. Children desperately need and benefit from learning quests such as this one.

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