By Tessa Raebeck
Building a camera that can withstand a tiger’s attack, another that can be raised and lowered into a forest canopy and a wearable power system that can charge devices for explorers in the field, students at the Ross School recently tested three tasks for the National Geographic Kids Engineering Exploration Challenge.
For a week in February, students at the Innovation Lab @Ross, an academy within the school that seeks to develop entrepreneurship in science, mathematics, engineering, media and technology for advanced students, tackled real-world problems faced by explorers. The Ross students served as the official testers of the challenge for National Geographic, which publicly released the guidelines to the rest of the world in a launch March 6 in the April issue of National Geographic Kids magazine.
“Since they found out about the Innovation Lab and the sort of hands-on project-based stuff that we do, they got the idea that it would be good to have a school to sort of test these engineering challenges before they went live,” Dr. David Morgan, dean of science and director of the Innovation Lab, said.
“The education review has always been a key part of our process at National Geographic before we launch new programs,” Kathleen Schwille, vice president, education design and development of Education Programs at National Geographic, said in a statement. “We asked Ross School to participate in the assessment of this project because we recognize a great deal of synergy between our philosophies, which is specifically evident in programs like the Innovation Lab @Ross.”
Some 20 students in grades four, six and high school participated in the test challenge. The younger students are part of the Junior Innovation Lab, an after-school program for grades four through eight that is also academic and for which students receive grades.
“The challenge gives budding engineers worldwide the opportunity to try to solve some of the technical problems that National Geographic explorers face in the field every day,” a press release issued by the company stated.
The challenge had three different levels, so students could participate in their respective test based on their age and ability.
The first challenge, tested by the youngest students, asked them to design, build and test a camera that can withstand an attack from wild animals in the field. In “Eye in the Sky,” the second challenge, students created a system that can raise a camera at least 10 feet in the air and safely lower it back down. The third and most challenging of the tasks was “Wearable Power,” in which high school students were asked to design, build and test a wearable way to generate at least 1 watt of electricity without the help of an electrical outlet, to enable those in the field to charge their cameras, equipment and other devices.
For the most part, fourth grade students undertook the animal-proof camera challenge, sixth graders tested “Eye in the Sky” and high school students constructed wearable devices for generating power, although Dr. Morgan said there was some overlap.
“They were actually able to create working prototypes [in a] nice range of levels and projects and the students came up with some really, really interesting ideas,” he said.
In addition to testing the actual tasks of the challenge, Ross students explored different means of doing so. Some students completed the project in a “day-long hack-a-thon,” working straight through from noon until 5 p.m. from beginning to end, designing, building and testing all at once. Other groups completed their projects by working on them for an hour a day for five days.
“One of the things we try to do in Innovation Lab in general,” explained Dr. Morgan, “is to give students big blocks of time to work on something. And the students accomplished way more in that big block of time, where you don’t have to pack things up and put them away at the end of every class. You can really do the whole thing at once and not interrupt your train of thought, so it was actually really successful.”
In the challenge to develop a wearable power system that can generate electricity to charge devices in the field without using an outlet, one group of high school students at Ross made a device resembling an orthopedic knee brace. They outfitted it with an electric motor, so that every time the person wearing it flexes their knees, electricity is generated, effectively creating power just by walking. Another group used hand-cranked electric flashlights embedded in the heel of a shoe, to generate electricity every time the wearer steps down and their heel hits the ground.
Through its participation in the challenge, the school was able to test several different formats at once, seeing how students worked in small groups versus big groups, the hour of time versus the hack-a-thon, and how the different age groups related to the challenge. Feedback on both the challenges and the Ross experience was provided to National Geographic and that guidance was incorporated into the public challenge.
Students enjoyed the projects so much that many hope to also participate in the public, worldwide competition, Dr. Morgan said.
After entering their designs online, along with a short description, video and photographs, students in the actual competition are judged “not just on which one works the best, but they’ll be judged on their creativity and their perseverance and their imagination,” he said. “So it’s not just about who’s generating the most volts of electricity, it’s about who has approached the engineering process with the right mindset…the challenge isn’t so much about winning, as it is about getting students to be creative and use their imaginations.”
During the official launch event of the public challenge, Ross students were invited to Skype with the personnel at National Geographic, to share their feedback and solutions.
“National Geographic’s mission is to inspire people to care about the planet,” said Ms. Schwille in a statement, “and we firmly believe that today’s most pressing global issues will be solved by tomorrow’s engineers.”