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Students Tackle Design Challenges with Friends Across the World

By Sally Dugan, The Pingry School

Last spring, we began our Level Up Village (LUV) partnership with students at Nicaphoto in Nicaragua. Through LUV’s Global Storybook Engineers course, we worked on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, math) activities, combining literacy with engineering challenges.

First, we read the story Strega Nona, set in Calabria, a region in southern Italy which forms the “toe” of the boot. The problem in the story is that the town is about to be flooded by pasta! Our first design challenge was to IMAGINE what if Big Anthony caused the pasta to overflow again. How could we save the town? Then we made a PLAN. We pretended that we were architects and tried to design a tower that would stand tall and not fall down using marshmallows, spaghetti, masking tape, and string.

Then we made a video to send to our partner class. In the video we told the NicaPhoto students something about the United States, described a place that we would like to take them if they came to visit, what are some things that we are excited about learning in this class, or three things that we have in common. We then received NicaPhoto’s video response and Sra. Fiore translated for us, plus Level Up Village provided a written description so Mrs. Driscoll could read what the NicaPhoto students said to us in English.

Using only 20 pieces of spaghetti, 10 mini marshmallows, masking tape and string, we tried to construct our designs. When each of our spaghetti towers were complete, we TESTed them to see if they did or did not match our original designs and if they did or did not hold up to the avalanche of pasta. Mrs. Driscoll and I threw empty water bottles at them to see how strong they were. Afterward, we brainstormed and wrote about if we could make a better spaghetti tower, what we would do differently. 

Sra. Fiore helped us write a message back to our partners at NicaPhoto. The message told what our names were and whether our tower worked. Students worked together to record the message and we shared it with our partner class via the student portal.

Over the next several class meetings, we read other folk tales such as Jabuti the Tortoise and Monkey: a Trickster from India. For each book, the students tackled design challenges to address difficulties faced by the characters. We also brainstormed as a class and wrote about ways to improve our designs.

At the end of the course, students reflected on what they learned and explained which were their favorite design challenges. They also commented on what they enjoyed about working with a global partner. Here’s a sampling of what they had to say about the experience:

“The most important thing I learned was how engineers ask, imagine, plan, create and improve. I learned that working with a Global Partner isn’t easy because you can’t just do things your way.” – Maeve

“I liked doing LUV because we built a tower, protected an egg, built a boat and made a BristleBot to go through our maze. The most important thing that I learned was to congratulate other people who succeeded. I could use what I learned to be a kinder friend. The best thing about working with a Global Partner is agreeing and working together and have fun!” – David

“The most important thing I learned is that things don’t always go according to plan.” – Zachary

“I learned there is always a thing that is wrong and needs to be fixed. You need to have cooperation and teamwork. If you fight over it, it might break. If you work together your BristleBot won’t fail.” – Tom

“I liked that we could work with partners and my favorite design was the BristleBots and the paths. I liked them because it felt like we were actually engineers because we got to use actual engineering gadgets like batteries, motors, and double sided tape. I learned that these projects will help you know what engineering is in real life if you want to become an engineer when you grow up.” – Skye

“I liked the global engineering. My favorite design challenge was the BristleBots. Sometimes it takes time to do things. I could take my garbage, like broken toys, and make a different fun toy. Working with a partner was more fun. Also, I learned more.” – Lila

“The most important thing I learned in LUV was that your plan does not always match your design. LUV helps you with your engineering skills. The best part about working with NicaPhoto is seeing how their designs worked or did not work.” – Nathan

“My favorite story was Zomo. I learned that planning is easier than building. My favorite design was the BristleBot because I like robots. I can use designing in life because I can be an engineer when I grow up.” – Aashna.

See Sally Dugan’s class blog for more updates on Global Storybook Engineers at Pingry.