Academic journal article Science Scope

Get a Grip!

Academic journal article Science Scope

Get a Grip!

Article excerpt

Byline: Suzanne A. Olds, Deborah A. Harrell, and Michael E. Valente

Investigating the field of engineering offers the opportunity for interdisciplinary, hands-on, inquiry-based units that integrate real-world applications; yet, many K-12 students are not exposed to engineering until they enter college. Get a Grip! is a problem-based unit that places middle school students in the role of engineers who are challenged to design and construct prosthetic arms for amputees in a war-torn country. The students use common materials to build arms that accomplish tasks requiring fine motor control and strength. A critical component of the unit is its ability to demonstrate to middle school students that strong, interdisciplinary knowledge is required to solve engineering problems. As such, it is a practical and efficient mode of interdisciplinary instruction meeting state and national standards in science, math, reading, and social studies.

This activity, the result of a partnership among university faculty, K-12 teachers, the Center for International Rehabilitation, and university engineering students, seeks to:

inform middle school students about engineering as a career-what engineers do and the impact they have on society,

engage middle school students in the engineering design process, and

encourage middle school students to draw on previously learned science concepts to accomplish a real-world engineering task.

Get a Grip! is a variable-length unit that challenges middle school student teams (groups of four or five) to design and construct a prosthetic arm from common materials for a 12-year-old Afghan girl who needs to eat and carry water from a nearby river to her home. Limiting the supplies to those that are readily available in that country constrains the students and reduces the materials cost of the unit.

Structure of the unit

The Get a Grip! unit is composed of eight lessons that support the Grand Challenge (see Figure 1).

This curriculum is available online at The cost to participate is $50, which includes training and support to use the curricular materials, access to the teacher's manual (lesson plans, student handouts, teacher notes, answer keys, extension activities), plus the videos referenced in this article. This access charge will be used to sustain the support, training, and development of the module-and not for any profit. For the 2006-2007 academic year only, the NSF grant will cover the access charge for all participants. The training is online and can be taken at the user's convenience. Tools that can also be accessed from the site including a document repository, a discussion forum, and an e-mail list. The cost does not include the materials used to build the arms or the Pinto's Hope books. The materials to build the arms can be purchased and gathered for about $10-15 per box, with a much smaller replenishment cost. The Pinto's Hope books can be purchased from for about $8 each, depending on the quantity ordered. Each lesson may be adjusted in length based on the content goals of the teacher. All lessons follow the Legacy Cycle framework, a format that incorporates findings from educational research on how people best learn (see Figure 2). Research and theory behind this method of learning may be found in How People Learn (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking 1999).

Figure 2 Legacy Cycle framework


A question that causes students to wonder about the topic and become engaged with it. The question frames the unit or lesson and requires students to bring to bear their current knowledge and preconceptions about the topic.

Generate ideas

A whole-class activity that causes students to display and compile their current knowledge/ ideas/perceptions. Implementation of this step is often done in the form of questions: What things would you need to know to answer this question? …

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