This year, I started teaching a new course at Dana Hall called Physics and Engineering. Previously, the Science Department offered an upper-level physics course called Physics 11/12 that was intended to be a comprehensive survey of high school physics content. Many of the students who took that course expressed a long-term interest in engineering, and as a former Civil Engineer myself, I saw this as an opportunity to do some cross-curricular learning.
For our first project, we were able to explore kinematics and dynamics as they applied to the acceleration of a fan cart. Students were tasked with developing a cart that was mobile and then making an improvement that would increase its acceleration. While simple on its face, students had to design and build a functioning cart with no lab directions guiding them on how to do so. They then had to create their own method for gathering data on the motion of their cart. Once they had collected adequate data, they had to explore methods for analyzing that data, applying what they knew about mathematical models for various kinds of motion. Finally, using their understanding of Newton’s Laws, students decided what they could change about their cart to increase its acceleration.
This process of revision, guided by scientific principles, has students engaging in both the scientific method and the engineering process in a cyclical fashion. The quality of their work as they collect data on their initial designs informs how well they can apply their understanding as they evolve their designs into an improved iteration. They learn by making mistakes and coming up short; figuring out they need more or better data than they initially gathered to draw effective conclusions. The course is designed to pull back the curtain on the notion that science is a straight forward and neat process, and instead, it exposes students to the rewarding experience of persevering through setbacks toward an ultimate goal.
Currently, students have selected carnival rides of their own choosing and are examining what goes into making them work so they can create functioning scale models of their rides. After having been given an overview of relevant topics, they will determine what they need to know more about to succeed in understanding and recreating these complex machines.
As the course draws to a close, students will leave equipped with skills in identifying what they don’t know, how to acquire that knowledge, how to regroup after setbacks, and how to advocate for themselves when they are in need of support — all skills that will serve them well as they pursue future careers in engineering and science.