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Students Tackle Real-Life Problems in Project Science Intensive

UPrep students learn the engineering design process during this winter intensive.

Students engineer bridges, robotic arms, and rubber-band airplanes

Popsicle sticks, rubber bands, cardboard scraps. These might be common household items, but to students in the Project Science intensive, they’re the magic ingredients for scientific discovery!

An elective intensive open to students in seventh and eighth grade, the goal of the Project Science course is to help students move beyond the memorization and regurgitation of information and develop their critical-thinking and problem-solving skills—while having lots of fun along the way!

During the action-packed three-week intensive, students use the engineering design process to build, test, and modify prototypes for a popsicle stick bridge, robotic arm, and rubber-band airplane. Students learn and grow through the mistakes they make along the way.

Each project in the intensive follows the same steps. First, students complete in-depth research on various designs, then they assess and rate these designs to determine which they think will be most effective, based on the project’s grading criteria. Next, utilizing what they learn in the research phase, students build a prototype; complete prototype testing; and make improvements until they reach their final design. Along the way, they are encouraged by teachers Brent Slattengren and Nhu-Quynh Tu to take risks, challenge themselves, and avoid conversation killers, such as “I can’t do this,” or “This will never work.” Finally, the students present their research, prototype process, and final design to the class before putting it to the test in an exciting challenge!

For their first project, students were challenged to design lightweight bridge models—using just Popsicle sticks and hot glue—that could support heavy weights. They researched various models, from truss bridges to beam bridges, before building their own designs. Their final test was to suspend their bridge model between two tables, hang a bucket from its underside, and gradually add hand weights until the bridge collapsed. Several of the Popsicle bridge designs successfully supported more than 100 pounds, gathering lots of applause from the class.

The students’ second assignment was to build and program robotic arms with servos (motors) that could pick up and gently put down a plastic cup. The teachers reminded them as they began their research that there is no right answer to the problem. As one student presented his final design, he shared that working intentionally is more important than working quickly during the design process. “When I realized that I could work a bit slower, I made less mistakes and enjoyed the process more,” he said.

The final challenge the students faced was to build a balsa wood, rubber-band airplane that could achieve a long airtime. They learned about lift, thrust, drag, and weight, and ensured that their designs were properly balanced to achieve flight. The students presented their final airplane designs to the class before throwing them through the air and calculating how long they remained in flight.

After each presentation, the teachers provided real-time feedback on the student’s public speaking skills, from eye contact and speed to content organization and enthusiasm. Their goal is that with each project and resulting presentation, students’ presentation skills improve.

By experiencing the engineering design process firsthand and learning to embrace mistakes and take chances, students finish this course with the confidence needed to tackle real-life, messy, and challenging problems in science. It is through project-based intensives like Project Science that we see UPrep’s legacy of innovation and culture of inspiration truly come to life! 

By Associate Director of Digital & Brand Communications Abby Formella


Read more about the 2021 January intensives here and here and watch the winter intensive video.

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