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Make Way for Trains: A Community-connected Elementary Geotechnical Engineering Unit (Resource Exchange)

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual On line

Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Pre-college Engineering Education Division Technical Session 13

Tagged Division

Pre-College Engineering Education

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Paper Authors


Chelsea J. Andrews Tufts University Orcid 16x16

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Chelsea Andrews is a post-doctoral researcher at Tufts University and University of Massachusetts-Boston. She received a B.S. from Texas A&M University in ocean engineering, an S.M. from MIT in civil and environmental engineering, and a PhD from Tufts University in Engineering Education. Her current research includes investigating children's engagement in engineering design through in-depth case study analysis.

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Nicole Alexandra Batrouny Tufts University

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Nicole Batrouny is a PhD candidate in Mechanical Engineering at Tufts University. Her engineering education research interests include upper elementary engineering education, integrated science and engineering, collaboration in engineering, and decision making in engineering. For her Master's thesis, she uncovered talk moves used by 4th grade students that fostered collaborative, disciplinary decision-making during an engineering design outreach program. For her dissertation, she intends to explore the ways in which team mental models function in teams of novice engineers and how novice engineers can be trained to collaborate more effectively on diverse teams.

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Kristen B. Wendell Tufts University

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Kristen Wendell is Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Adjunct Associate Professor of Education at Tufts University. Her research efforts at at the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach focus on supporting discourse and design practices during K-12, teacher education, and college-level engineering learning experiences, and increasing access to engineering in the elementary school experience, especially in under-resourced schools. In 2016 she was a recipient of the U.S. Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE).

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In the ConnecTions in the Making project, researchers and district partners work to develop and study community-connected, integrated science and engineering curriculum units that support diverse elementary students’ science and engineering ideas, practices, and attitudes. In the community-connected units, students in the third, fourth, and fifth grades use human-centered design strategies to prototype and share functional solutions to a design challenge rooted in the students’ local community while also exploring scientific explanations of the phenomena and mechanisms related to the challenge.

One of these units is “Make Way for Trains,” a fourth grade geotechnical engineering unit comprised of 8 lessons, approximately 1 hour each, including a launch lesson, 6 alternating inquiry and engineering design lessons that build to the final design challenge, and a final design exposition.

In the unit launch lesson, students are introduced to an engineering problem in their own community: the city is extending train tracks for a trolley line, which includes widening the track corridor, which will bring the tracks closer to bordering homes. Students see that an engineering solution is required to support the remaining earth material, both to keep material off the tracks and to support the homes.

Over the next 6 lessons, students learn some key aspects of geotechnical engineering, such as angle of repose, retaining walls, and soil stabilization techniques, by analyzing photographs of geotechnical solutions, noticing geotechnical engineering designs in their own communities (such as retaining walls on a school playground), and conducting scaffolded and free inquiry lessons with different kinds of earth materials and models of geotechnical materials.

In the final design challenge (approximately 1 hour), students design, build, test, and iterate on a scale model solution to the earth material retaining problem in a large clear plastic bin. The earth materials are modeled with pebbles (bedrock) and sand (soil), and students build with small sticky notes, toothpicks, paperclips, and pieces of textile materials for layering, to model building materials. When student teams test their designs, they place a model house (a brick) on their stabilized soil behind their retaining wall, then model train rumbling (shaking the bin) and check the results. In a successful test, the house remains standing and no earth material falls on the train tracks. Almost all the initial designs fail the test and student teams iterate and continue testing until their designs succeed or they run out of time.

At the final Design Expo, students share their designs and design process with other students and members of the school and greater community.

While the unit was designed to build on the 4th grade engineering and earth and space sciences standards, it also functions as a stand-alone integrated science and engineering unit for grades 3-6. Also, while the launch lesson as written connects to a current engineering problem in [blinded], examples of similar types of problems common to many communities are also provided.

At the exchange, we will provide full documentation of the final design challenge, including examples of student solutions, and links to the accompanying unit lessons.

Andrews, C. J., & Batrouny, N. A., & Wendell, K. B. (2020, June), Make Way for Trains: A Community-connected Elementary Geotechnical Engineering Unit (Resource Exchange) Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--34936

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