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Not-So-Weird Science

From left, teacher Kevin Knack helps club member Verda Korzeniewski problem solve while Ezra Balden looks on. © 2018 Encore Publications/Jordan Bradley
Engineering club teaches middle schoolers to try, try again

Any scientist will tell you that failure teaches more than success, which is why the kids in the Engineering Club at Milwood Magnet School in Kalamazoo are learning a lot.

In 2013, when Kevin Knack, a sixth-grade science teacher at Milwood, saw his students’ enthusiasm for the short 3D design portion of the science curriculum he taught, he knew he needed to create a way to further that interest. The two-week segment focused on computer-aided design, or CAD, with only a small portion of that time focused on 3D design, so Knack created an after-school time to expose students to the principles and processes of engineering and let them finish projects they couldn’t complete during class time. The ad hoc afterschool program became a hit.

Four years later, that afterschool time is now officially the Engineering Club. The club “is something that complements our assigned curriculum, which is not really dedicated to 3D printing and things like that,” Knack says. “But we were finding that kids wanted more time with it, so the club is an opportunity for the kids who are interested to really dig in and mess around and practice.”

The club, which has 10 to 15 members, meets Tuesdays, and the hour-long sessions are relatively free form, with students having the chance to work on any designs they can create. But when inspiration is lacking, Knack will provide challenges for them. One such challenge involves asking his students to consider the caliper of a tape dispenser. He asks them to think about why the caliper is designed the way it is. Is it more efficient physically or more cost-effective to produce? And how should they take their assumptions into consideration as they are creating their own designs?

“We want them to realize that the first idea is not always the best idea,” Knack says, “to get that idea of revising and improving on something and just coming up with a more systematic way of arriving at these solutions.”

Evolution of a club

Revising and improving have been part of the program’s evolution as well.

During its first year, the group’s CAD software wasn’t compatible with the computers available at the school, and the 3D files the students created had to be printed using a 3D printer owned by a parent volunteer. The following year, Knack says, they got the CAD program to work on the school’s computers, but then there was a conflict between the files the students created and the volunteer parent’s printer. In the third year, the group started using a different design program, Tinkercad. Students would create and tweak their files, then Knack would email them to Joe Korzeniewski, the parent volunteer and father of club member Verda Korzeniewski, to print them as he could.

In 2016, the local manufacturer Forrest Company donated a 3D printer to Knack and the students, so they could design and print their ideas all in the same place.

And every member can tell you a story about a failed print.

“Failure’s not a problem here,” Knack admits.

For example, seventh-grader Ezra Balden forgot to check the measurements of his ninja star and ended up with a not-so-lethal piece of plastic the size of a dime.

Reznor Kleber, also in seventh grade, printed the base of his treasure chest four times and the lid five times before the pieces finally fit together the way he intended.

And the students are not the only ones learning; Knack has been been getting quite an education himself about the capabilities and limitations of 3D printers.

Knack explains that 3D printers work by melting plastic filaments into a liquid, which is poured out as a very thin layer that cools very quickly into a solid. The printer’s nozzle continues to put down layers of this liquid plastic over and over, following the instructions it’s been given by the 3D file.

Making sure that the printer is calibrated on a regular basis to prevent wonky prints and that the temperature is just right to prevent warping as the plastic cools are things that Knack learned along the way.

“A 3D printer is not exactly a ‘Star Trek’ replicator,” Knack says. “It has plenty of limitations. There are a thousand different settings and temperatures and materials.”

A good challenge

Thinking critically about and working within those limitations is a challenge the Engineering Club’s members must tackle. Knack’s approach is very hands-off. While he may offer hints about where the students have gone wrong, he still prints their files even if he sees flaws beforehand.

When Knack is asked by a student what needs to be changed in order for a design to be print-ready, Knack responds, “I have faith in your ability to puzzle it out.”

“The real-world exposure” that students get is one of the benefits of the club, says parent volunteer Korzeniewski. “Like the build cycle of having to design something and then see the real-world limitations of it and then make adjustments based on limitations that you didn’t think of when you’re just designing something on the screen,” he explains. “That kind of feedback loop is something they don’t get a lot outside of the science classroom.”

Students also talked about the benefits they gain from the club and why they enjoy participating.

“I like that you can create your own design,” says Annabella Moran, a seventh-grader. “If you want to do a bird or something, you have to figure out what to use. This club is really fun because sometimes we get different kinds of challenges. If it doesn’t work out, you have to fix it and try again. That’s what I like about this club.”

“You’re able to make it whatever you want. There (are) restrictions, obviously,” says Kleber, “but nobody else can tell you what’s right or wrong. If you want to make it, you can make it. Whatever your mind can think of and put your mind to and work on, you can pretty much do.”

There’s an additional benefit to the club that one parent mentioned — camaraderie. Jeralee Kunkee says her son, eighth-grader Shane Salmon, enjoys “finding and working with other children that are working to advance themselves.”

Currently the club relies on donations from the community and volunteer time from parents and teachers. Eventually, if Knack can get school funding and grants he’s applied for, he would like to have more 3D printers and a dedicated room at the middle school to serve as a makerspace where the students can learn about the actual printing process along with the designing.

Jordan Bradley

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