Build it and they will come

Mini-innovation days spark K-5 students’ interest in engineering

Students at Swansboro Elementary School in the City of Richmond test the absorbency of different materials as they design dams to protect structures from flooding.
Students at Swansboro Elementary School in the City of Richmond test the absorbency of different materials as they design dams to protect structures from flooding. (Photo credit: David Timberline)

By Patricia Cason
VCU Division of Community Engagement

When Jenilee Stanley-Shanks, the director of government and community outreach for VCU’s College of Engineering, shows up at an elementary school, the kids know they’re in for a treat. In their minds, they’re going to be saving a house from catastrophic flood or becoming a real-life scientist who guides a robot through a maze. But what Stanley-Shanks is doing is sowing the seeds that will make kids pursue an engineering career.

The VCU College of Engineering started doing Mini-Innovation Days during the 2017-18 academic year. Since then these sessions have become a part of the college’s Early Engineers program, which includes all of the college’s K-5 outreach activities. Mini-Innovation days aim to spark students’ interest in STEAM concepts from a young age, as it’s often difficult to draw students to the field when they’re older. Stanley-Shanks describes this as “widening the pool,” as interest decreases when students become older and realize how many advanced math classes go into an engineering or computer science degree.

“I especially like the Innovation Days because we get to be with students in their own environment,” Stanley-Shanks said. “They are comfortable and relaxed, which leads to a much more valuable experience where they are able to focus on the new skills that they are learning.”

On a recent morning, Stanley-Shanks brought a crew of VCU Engineering students and staff with her to try out a new activity on the students of Swansboro Elementary School in South Richmond. The session began with her explaining to the class that they would be building a dam with various materials to stop their houses from flooding. She first measured the absorbency of the materials the students would choose from to build their dams: cotton balls, pieces of rags and sponges. The goal was was for students to note which material was most absorbent, and choose this as their building material.

The projects were constructed in aluminum pans, with construction paper rectangles representing houses. A line was drawn around the bottom of each house to represent the point it would be flooded. Students were given time to construct their design, with a VCU Engineering volunteer at each table helping them. The most popular material was cotton balls, which students packed around the outside of their pans. A daring group chose sponges as their material, which they cut up and placed around the pan.

One student told Stanley-Shanks that he hadn’t received exactly fifty cotton balls, they number she’d told students they would receive if they chose that material. Stanley-Shanks good-naturedly gave him the number he was missing — after all, he was just trying to take advantage of his resources.

After the designs were completed they were tested by pouring a cup of water into the pan. If no water touched the construction paper house, the house was safe from water damage. If the bottom of the house was wet but the water didn’t reach the line, the bottom of their house was a little damp. If the water was past the line, their house was flooded.

Fortunately, no students had a completely flooded house. The groups with cotton balls fared better than those with sponges, but no one had more than a damp basement. The students were excited they’d saved their houses. Best of all, Stanley-Shanks and the VCU Engineering volunteers had interested the students in STEAM concepts without their even realizing it.

“I am constantly amazed at the energy and curiosity that the students we work with bring to the activities,” Stanley-Shanks said. “I like the opportunity to show them what engineering is and to let them know that STEAM fields need people just like them to help create the technologies and inventions of tomorrow.”