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The Pencil-Top Fidget: Reinventing Shop (Metal Drilling and Tapping) in High School Science Classrooms

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2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

June 19, 2019

Conference Session

Engineering Design Process Activities with Secondary Students

Tagged Division

Pre-College Engineering Education

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Paper Authors


Matthew J. Traum Engineer Inc. Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Matthew J. Traum is founding CEO at Engineer Inc., a Florida-based STEM education social enterprise start-up. Traum invented @HOLM™ lab kits to enable students in on-line courses to build and run engineering experiments remotely at home.

Before founding Engineer Inc., Dr. Traum was a well-known higher education administrator, fund raiser, educator, and researcher with co-authorship of 12 peer-reviewed research journal articles, 18 refereed research conference articles, and 20 refereed pedagogical conference articles. As a PI or Co-PI, Traum has attracted over $841 K in funding for research, education, and entrepreneurial ventures from multiple sources including NSF, NASA, ASHRAE, AIAA, Sigma Xi, the Texas State Energy Conservation Office, and several industry sponsors including Toshiba and Oshkosh.

Most recently as Associate Professor and Director of Engineering Programs at Philadelphia University, Dr. Traum led the Mechanical Engineering Program through a successful ABET interim visit resulting in no deficiencies, weaknesses, or concerns.

Previously, Dr. Traum was an assistant professor at the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE), one of the top-ten undergraduate-serving engineering universities in the U.S. Dr. Traum coordinated MSOE's first crowd-funded senior design project. He also co-founded with students EASENET, a start-up renewable energy company to commercialize waste-to-energy biomass processors.

Dr. Traum began his academic career as a founding faculty member in the Mechanical & Energy Engineering Department at the University of North Texas - Denton where he established a successful, externally-funded researcher incubator that trained undergraduates to perform experimental research and encouraged matriculation to graduate school.

Traum received a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he held a research assistantship at MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies. At MIT he invented a new nano-enabled garment to provide simultaneous ballistic and thermal protection to infantry soldiers. Dr. Traum also holds a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from MIT with a focus on cryogenics and two bachelor’s degrees from the University of California, Irvine: one in mechanical engineering and the second in aerospace engineering. In addition, he attended the University of Bristol, UK as a non-matriculating visiting scholar where he completed an M.Eng thesis in the Department of Aerospace Engineering on low-speed rotorcraft control.

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Sharon Liz Karackattu Oak Hall School

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Sharon L. Karackattu earned a B.S. in Interdisciplinary Studies: Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from the University of Florida in 2000 and completed a Ph.D. in Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2006. She served as a postdoctoral associate in MIT’s Biological Engineering Division before spending two years as a Research Coordinator for Student Development at University of North Texas. She is currently a high school science instructor specializing in chemistry and the life sciences. She has taught college-level courses in the biosciences and maintains an interest in studying students pursuing the STEM fields.

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Shop classes where students use tools to fashion useful and functional objects from metal, wood, plastic, and other materials are disappearing from most American high schools in favor of more theoretical subjects. Multiple factors contribute to this transition including 1) cost to maintain shops, 2) liability concerns, 3) focus on exam-driven standards-based testing, 4) and curriculum realignment for improved college admissions. There is interest in re-introducing elements of shop class back into high schools enabling students to learn by doing and to become more aware of how things are made.

Borrowing upon foundational Energy Engineering Laboratory Module (EELM™) pedagogy, we propose that engineering can be taught to students in all Science, Technology, Entrepreneurship, Arts, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEAEM) courses through practical hands-on learning experiences. Therefore, instead of resurrecting standalone shop classes in their original Industrial Arts manifestation, we recommend an alternative. Inexpensive and topically-relevant hands-on learning activities should be developed competent for ubiquitous and seamless insertion into STEAEM courses. When offered to teachers as educational kits, these activities could be selected a la carte from a catalog to integrate with existing classes. This approach induces minimal curriculum disruption, facilitates easy instructor adoption, and allows high schools to continue offering modern and relevant college preparatory courses. In parallel, however, this approach also enables schools to bring back the empowering, tactile, project-based educational benefits of an Industrial Arts shop class. Plus, these experiences can be harnessed to expose students to the engineering mindset of open-ended problem solving.

To demonstrate the principle, we present a simple hands-on fabrication project deployed in a required high school STEM course for 9th and 10th graders. Following the popular “fidget spinner” trend, students were challenged to each create their own customized pencil-top fidget from a nylon bolt, a metal lock nut, and a 1” x 1” x 1/4" aluminum block. Starting with those three raw parts and basic tools appropriate for a high school science classroom, each student 1) located and drilled holes in metal and plastic, 2) tapped a threaded hole in metal, and 3) assembled a completed working pencil-top fidget device.

Cycling a classroom of ~25 students through a safety talk and all fabrication process steps to device competition took four 45-minute class periods, and these activities were repeated across multiple periods each day. To assess indirectly the activity’s impact, students (N = 79) filled out an exit survey with questions posed against a Likert-like response scale. 35.44% and 65.82% of respondents respectively reported never using a drill press or threading a hole prior to this project. Reflecting on the project, 89.87% agreed or strongly agreed it demonstrated how holes are made on drill presses, and 91.14% reported new understanding of how taps cut screw threads into holes. Overall, 88.46% reported that they were exposed to new skills by the project, and 79.49% agreed the project was interesting to them. This project can be effectively and seamlessly inserted into high school STEAEM classes and used to introduce students to the essential and beneficial hands-on fabrication elements of shop class. 

Next steps to develop the pencil-top fidget learning activity into an open-ended and entrepreneurial engineering design and manufacturing module are also discussed.

Traum, M. J., & Karackattu, S. L. (2019, June), The Pencil-Top Fidget: Reinventing Shop (Metal Drilling and Tapping) in High School Science Classrooms Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--33413

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