Cardboard boats help float STEM education in region

When Jackson County High School students put cardboard boats in Tennessee Tech University’s Fitness Center pool this spring, it was proof that not only did the boats float, but so did teacher Matt Boynton’s efforts to explain what engineering is all about.

Boynton, a TTU civil engineering graduate student, leads the class in hands-on, real-world projects that show students how science, technology, engineering and mathematics are relevant in their lives. Through matchstick rockets, drinking straw bridges, fuel cells, even cardboard boats, he’s increasing student motivation, cooperative learning skills and and student achievement.

JCHS sophomore Chelsea Maxwell says in this class formulas come to life.

“The cardboard boat project has been my favorite because we started from scratch to figure out how to design it and then followed through to make it,” she said. “These projects show you instead of tell you, and you understand through the experience.”

That’s just want Boynton wants to hear.

“Through these projects, they see on a small scale what can be done on a large scale and see how things come together,” he said.

The class is supported by TTU’s Extended Programs, College of Engineering and Jackson County school system through a national grant-based program called “Project Lead the Way.” This pilot project specifically targeted a rural school where resources are limited. Research shows that schools practicing activities-based, project-based and problem-based learning leads to greater student motivation and higher achievement levels.

“The big picture is that we are trying to stimulate STEM education throughout the rural regions,” explained Boynton. “Small schools often don’t have money for equipment or the luxury of offering specialized classes like this.”

The 14 JCHS students, five girls and nine boys, were chosen based on selected math and science grades. They’ve honed presentation skills and studied engineering design, thermodynamics, electricity and other engineering science topics.

Senior Eric Quick, whose cardboard boat team won the class competition, says designing a cardboard boat that didn’t sink taught him a valuable lesson.

“This project showed us that we could make the unexpected happen by just going through each step and solving it hands on,” said Quick. “I think this program should be taken into other schools because it gives kids in a place like this a chance and experience.”

Boynton credits Jackson County Director of Schools Joe Barlow, Marcella Bentley, career and technical education director and Deb Whitaker, secondary education director, for working to find areas where partnering with TTU would help students the most.

“We were looking for opportunities to network with TTU, and principles of engineering was one of three major areas we thought would work,” said Bentley. “We are first in the state to partner with a university to offer it in this way.”

At the university Vice President for Extended Programs and Regional Development Susan Elkins and College of Engineering Interim Dean David Huddleston have coordinated efforts, while civil engineering professor Faisal Hossain has taken his research interests, particularly NASA-related projects, and developed presentations and hands-on experiments for the class.

“I wanted to make what NASA does interesting to them and illustrate the value of science and engineering fundamentals,” said Hossain. “For instance, NASA is not just about outer space; the agency does a lot for Earth in areas that might be of career interests to students.

“Plus, they need to see how engineering can affect them close to where they live,” said Hossain. “We did a small experiment with water to illustrate the damage that can be done by over pumping water from the ground and how sustainability is important.”

Boynton stresses that the collaboration is illustrative of the best STEM education can be when the expertise and organizational abilities of the university serve secondary schools with a desire to excite and motivate students.

“We show them that engineering is something they can do, something beneficial that can lead to a good career,” said Boynton. “And we show them they can do great things.”


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