Thursday, January 21, 2016

Laser Cutter Advances Physics Project

The addition of a laser cutter to the Penn Charter Idea Lab has allowed for a drastic change in an intro physics bridge project this year.

Over the last 20 years, my introductory physics classes have designed and built traditional truss bridges using wood sticks and glue. The students have worked in groups to design bridges and spent a couple of weeks building them before the bridges were "loaded to breaking" to find their strength. While students learned about forces and bridge strength this way, due to the time required to build the bridges they were unable to take this knowledge and use it to create an improved design.

The use of the laser cutter is an example of Goal 2 of our Strategic Vision and how the introduction of new technology can maximize student learning, engagement and success.

With the laser cutter, students spend ~20 minutes to take the bridge from design to final product instead of two weeks. The addition of the new technology has allowed the classes to build approximately four times as many bridges as they would have with the old technique, and they have had the opportunity to be far more creative with their designs. Less time with wood sticks and glue and more time to create designs, test them, and then create additional bridges based off the results.

This iterative process gives students a chance to explore different ideas. Some designs may “fail,” but this is where the real learning occurs. Looking at the “failures” of their own designs and those of other class members allows students to determine the critical factors for a reliable bridge. Observing and learning from the solutions of others is also a fundamental part of the engineering design process.

The addition of the new technology has allowed the classes to build approximately four times as many bridges as they would have with the old technique, and they have had the opportunity to be far more creative with their designs while still working towards making the strongest possible bridges.  As students have refined their designs some students have managed to double their original strength-to-weight ratios.  In the future students will be able to run multiple tests of the same design and to compare a bridge model using different materials to get a deeper understanding of variability and material properties.

Tim Clarke, Upper School Science 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Travels of a T-Shirt: Understanding Our Global Economy

What could be interesting about an old t-shirt? Our seventh grade geography class set out to find answers! 

This year, my geography classes explored issues surrounding globalization by looking at the travels of a simple t-shirt, tracing the journey of this product we take for granted. This exploration of the origins of our clothing revealed to them an entire, and somewhat tangled, network. 

We looked at the cotton fields in Uzbekistan, the processing plants in China, the garment factories in Bangladesh, the cargo ships that travel between major ports, and finally the clothing stores in the United States. What emerged was the idea that a simple cotton t-shirt is anything but simple! During our lesson, we read and watched a powerful NPR segment that looked at global trade of a manufactured t-shirt. Here is the link to the segment that inspired us.

Knowing that questions are often more powerful than answers, we asked ourselves some sophisticated questions about the manufacturing industry: 
  • Do the many factories in Bangladesh (and other manufacturing hot spots) improve the quality of life for their citizens? 
  • How much influence do consumers have over the products they purchase? 
  • Are there examples of boycotts that have improved working conditions? 
  • And, how can we share this information with the larger Penn Charter community? 

Having never done this particular project before, my students and I developed a design plan. First, we collected gently used t-shirts. We learned that many second-hand shirts from the US end up in less developed countries’ open-air garment markets. 

As my students explored these questions and more, we decided to create a public display that explains each part of the manufacturing process -- from the cotton fields to The Gap. We strung the shirts on a clothesline in our hallway and researched information to display about the garment industry. The facts that accompany the clothing line reflect the complexities and global connection of our everyday products. They include: sweatshop labor statistics, factory worker images, and facts about the cost of shipping. 

On our hallway world map, we posed more questions about the global economy on Post-It notes and encouraged others to add more. The connections to our everyday products and the global economy are now part of our Middle School conversations.

This student-driven, interdisciplinary project is just one example of how we are fulfilling the call in our Strategic Vision to educate students about our complex and changing global community. It also illustrates how students, once armed with knowledge, can become change agents as well. A few students saw this as an opportunity for service as well, and they organized a clothing collection (including our t-shirt display) for the local organization My Closet on Martin Luther King Day.

Alice Bateman, Middle School Social Studies