There’s something strange about Marlene Armstrong’s engineering classroom at the high school.
First off — no tidy rows of desks. Instead, long tables with a haphazard arrangement of chairs let students grab a place with a group where they wish.
Second, students work scattered across the room — clustered in groups, their heads bent in complete concentration.
Third, no teacher stands at the front of the room lecturing. Instead, Armstrong wanders amongst the students, answering a question here, suggesting a new angle to a problem there.
Welcome to the 21st century classroom, where project-based learning replaces lectures and note-taking, boredom and lack of relevance.
“This program gives the students a reason to be excited about science. They say, ‘This is why I need math and this is why physics is important,’” said Armstrong.
Armstrong’s engineering class resulted from lobbying efforts by the parent group, Payson Association for Advanced Learning (PAAL). Last spring, the parents recognized the need to increase students’ math, science and engineering options available and so worked with teachers, administrators, and the school board to bring this new class and its curriculum to the high school.
The classroom itself looks like a NASA control room. White tiles line the floor and ceiling while alabaster walls complete the sterile space age feeling. Black flat screen computers line the outside walls of the room while in a side room, a huge 3-D printer waits to turn the student’s ideas into functioning models they can hold in their hands.
In order for the students to understand how to make use of the machine that will convert their ideas into 3-D models, they start with a simple puzzle block project.
Each group of students receives nine blocks, which they must measure carefully and assemble into a shape that makes a puzzle. After this, the students draw their puzzle in 3-D and enter the information into a computer program called Inventor.
Once the computer program has the specs for the project, the information is sent to the 3-D printer that prints out the puzzle in 3-D. Most unique, each block can move. The printer literally makes a 3-D project with moving parts. For a video of the printer’s capabilities see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZboxMsSz5Aw.
After the puzzle project, the students will move on to creating a model of a train locomotive, including the grate, axles, pistons, side rod, boiler, running board, frame, piston rod, chimney, boiler tubes, and other intricate parts of the engine.
“It will probably take six weeks to design everything,” said Armstrong.
The vision for this engineering class came from parents, teachers and administrators visiting the Crest STEM School in the Paradise Valley school district.
“We looked at their STEM program to see if that was the direction we wanted to take,” said Armstrong.
Crest’s curriculum, Project Lead the Way (www.pltw.org), introduces students to the concept of 3-D engineering.
Originally worried whether the district could find enough students to fill one class, Armstrong ended up with two sections with a total of 42 students.
Most of these students have been with Armstrong since kindergarten where Armstrong started her teaching career at Frontier Elementary.
“My students are amazing. I’ve seen them go from kindergarten to high school. I know their parents and they know my teaching style. It’s making this first year wonderful, “said Armstrong.
Her students include a ninth-grader named Harrison Meidinger. He hopes to work in the aerospace industry and attend Arizona State University. Scott Davidson, the seventh-grade science teacher at RCMS introduced Meidinger to science and technology when he took the fledgling engineer to ASU to participate in the Mars project.
“I was kind of excited when I had the opportunity to do this (engineering) class. My favorite thing — being able to think up new designs and projects,” said Meidinger.
Other students share Meidinger’s enthusiasm: “It’s the best having this class at the end of the day. The class is something to look forward to,” said Rockell Schmidt, a ninth-grader who wants to become a marine biologist.
“It’s the one class in the day when everyone participates and we get to pick groups,” said Natalia Olivares, another freshman student in Armstrong’s class. She wants to become a genetic engineer.
Olivares and Schmidt represent an interesting demographic in Armstrong’s classes.
In most engineering classes from college to high school, the ratio of boys to girls is often 10:1, said Armstrong.
In Armstrong’s class, the ratio is 2:1.
Armstrong said she visited every eighth-grade class to ask if the girls were interested in doing things outside the box and having fun in a project-based program. The idea of how to approach girls came from her two-year participation in an Arizona State University program called Prime the Pipeline (http://primevillages.asu.edu), she said.
The program is designed to increase high school students’ interest and success in studying science, technology, engineering, mathematics and business. Prime the Pipeline gave Armstrong a background in 3-D modeling and beginning engineering.
“We actually created a disaster escape plan for the ASU Polytechnic campus,” said Armstrong.
Another aspect of Prime the Pipeline included writing a plan on how to inspire girls to get into engineering, said Armstrong.
“There’s a huge amount of scholarships for girls in math and engineering,” said Armstrong.
Another reason the girls and boys enjoy the class — the teacher.
“I had Mrs. Armstrong for careers,” said Adam Schannon.
“So did we,” said Olivares, Schmidt and Kylie Ridley.