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Clarkson Teams Up With Middle Schools To Bring Hands-on Lessons In Recycling And Engineering To Local Students

One hundred thirty middle school students from Potsdam Central School took a field trip recently to Clarkson University where they donned hardhats andClarkson Teams Up With Middle Schools goggles to test the strength of concrete mixtures by crushing small test cylinders.

The students’ trip was part of a three-week solid waste curriculum, presented by Clarkson students at A.A. Kingston Middle School as part of the University’s highly successful K-12 Project-based Learning Partnership and Partners in Engineering (PIE) programs. These programs provide hands-on lessons to area students that integrate technology, engineering, science and math. Schools currently involved include Potsdam, Colton-Pierrepont, Parishville-Hopkinton, and Salmon River central schools.

“The Potsdam students were presented with an open-ended problem: How can we reduce the waste our community disposes by turning some of it into a reusable product?” said Jan DeWaters, a research associate in Clarkson’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a coordinator for the K-12 and PIE programs. “In particular, the students were asked to investigate how to reuse nonbiodegradable waste as a substitute aggregate in the manufacture of concrete.”

In order to accomplish this, the students applied a realistic problem-solving process that mirrors procedures used by practicing engineers, including: defining the problem and desired outcomes, brainstorming alternative solutions, investigating and testing solution options, determining the best solutions, and implementing and evaluating the success of their product.

“The kids learned a lot about material properties and engineering principles related to compressive and tensile forces and stresses,” said DeWaters. “They also learned a lot about waste issues. In one exercise they were asked to take an inventory of everything they threw away over a five-day period and then look at what’s recyclable, reusable or biodegradable.”

Eventually, the students mixed a variety of concrete recipes using waste materials they had on hand, including rubber, shredded PVC plastic, and glass and prepared small “test” cylinders. At the Clarkson structures laboratory, the students used special machinery to crush their cylinders and measure the compressive strength.

While visiting Clarkson, the students also participated in other activities and demonstrations that reinforced scientific principles and the importance of design and materials in building.

One highlight was a robotics demonstration with members of Clarkson’s FIRST Robotics team, which each year designs and builds a robot for national competitions. Clarkson undergraduates from the Mini-Baja team also provided a firsthand look at how a group of students work together to build an amphibious all-terrain vehicle for regional competitions throughout the east.

Following the field trip, the students evaluated their compression strength data using charts to determine the waste aggregate that made the strongest mix. The students used an engineering decision-making matrix to evaluate the different cylinders for strength as well as less objective criteria such as appearance, texture and availability of the waste materials.

Once the students selected their choice waste aggregate they produced 65 decorative stepping stones, which they are selling for $3 each. The $195 they expect to raise will be donated to “Nickels for Nichole,” an area fund-raising campaign working to finance a lung transplant for Lisbon High School senior Nichole Davis.

“This curriculum takes the students from start to finish through an entire engineering process that includes elements of technology, science, waste management, and product marketing,” said DeWaters. “In doing so, it provides them a genuine look at how engineers and technical professionals think and work.” Many of the middle school students who participated agreed.

“I never thought I would be interested in technology, but designing and building something with your own hands is pretty neat,” said Maggie Cook, an eighth grade student from Potsdam Middle School. “It might be fun to be part of an engineering team, working with other people to meet design guidelines and deadlines. This whole program really has me rethinking what I might want to study in college.”

Her classmate Amanda Stone also praised the hands-on education. “The whole technology program has been really interesting. I’ve learned how to make the connections between theory and action. The curriculum is really about applying the basic ideas we are already learning in our regular science classes to create useful materials out of waste or alternative energy systems that may improve our future.”

Jan DeWaters and Diane Brouwer, administrative assistant in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, supervised the program. The curriculum was taught by K-12 program teaching fellows: graduate students Melissa Toh and Brian Lowes; engineering seniors Luke Dosiek and Jason Woodruff; juniors Christina Lavoie, Caitlin Lawrence, and Jennifer Urquhart; and sophomore Meghan Graham.

The successful K-12 Project-Based Learning Partnership Program recently received renewed funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) through an award of over $2 million to Clarkson and St. Lawrence Universities over the next five years.

The grant funding will expand and continue the programs presently funded by NSF and the GE Foundation, the philanthropic foundation of the General Electric Company. The grant expands Clarkson’s Project-based Learning Partnership Program, created by Clarkson University Professor Susan E. Powers, and St. Lawrence University’s Teaching Scholar Partnership Program, led by St. Lawrence principal investigator Assistant Professor of Education Esther Oey.

The NSF grant will allow the universities to continue funding graduate and advanced undergraduate teaching fellowships. In collaboration with classroom teachers and university faculty, the team of teaching fellows will develop course curricula and hone their teaching skills over the summer. The student/teachers will then be putting their knowledge to work in area classrooms over the following school year. Courses will continue to emphasize the development and application of learning and skills in math, science, engineering and technology concepts.

Donations for the “Nickels for Nichole” campaign can be sent to Nickels for Nichole, c/o Lisbon Central School, P.O. Box 39, Lisbon, N.Y. 13658.

PHOTO CAPTION:  Students from Potsdam’s A.A. Kingston Middle School recently visited Clarkson University’s Structures laboratory to test the strength of concrete mixtures by crushing test cylinders. Here, students listen as Clarkson University Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering Research Associate Jan DeWaters explains the principles behind stress testing. The field trip was part of a three-week solid waste curriculum, presented by Clarkson students as part of the University’s highly successful K-12 Project Based Learning Partnership and Partners in Engineering (PIE) programs.

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Annie Harrison, Director of Media Relations, at 315-268-6764 or]

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