PRISM  On-Line - October 99
teaching toolbox
On Campus - Aeronautics for Kids

by Rahul Chadha

In a garage in upstate New York, a group of 12-year-olds armed with power drills and ratchets are hard at work building a real, functioning helicopter. No, this isn't a child-labor scandal. Rather, students at Felix Festa Middle School in West Nyack are participating in a hands-on educational experience designed to interest them in math, science, and technology.

Copter 1
Middle-school students learn about engineering while building this $62,000 helicopter from a kit

Over the next two to three years, technology education teacher Alan Horowitz will oversee Project SMART (for Science, Math, and Rotocraft Technology). Horowitz's project will allow as many as 2,000 students to help assemble the working helicopter from a kit, and to learn about aeronautics and engineering in the process.

After successfully completing a solar car project a few years ago, Horowitz was struggling to find a new challenge for his technologically-adept students. He finally struck on the idea of constructing an airplane, but there was one problem. "Believe it or not, we're in the only county in New York without an airport," says Horowitz, who settled on a helicopter instead.

Horowitz cites the shortage of engineering undergraduates as the impetus for his programs. To foster an interest in technology at a relatively early age, he wanted to do something that would capture the students' interest. The response has been overwhelming. "One of my biggest problems is how to keep the number of students down at any one time," he says. Though some students work on the project during school hours, the bulk of the work takes place before and after classes, on the students' own time.

Copter 2While there is a great deal of interest in the program at the middle-school level, Horowitz says there is also a carry-over effect to high school and college. He has found that students who participated in the solar car project years ago are now heading to college, intent on studying science or engineering. There has also been strong interest in the program from female students, which Horowitz takes as another sign of the project's success.

In addition, taxpayers can breathe easy about the copter's $62,000 price tag. In a grass-roots effort that would do a presidential candidate proud, Horowitz has managed to raise most of the funds himself. His technique involved "writing 2,000 letters to every person and company I could think of," says Horowitz. "At one point I was just going through the Yellow Pages." Donations ranged from $10 from Horowitz's barber to a $31,000 Christa McAuliffe Fellowship from the New York Board of Regents.

As for the chopper's maiden flight, citizens of West Nyack need not fear for their lives—Horowitz is busy taking lessons to learn to pilot the craft. And student joy rides are completely out of the question.

Rahul Chadha is a Prism editorial intern.

On Campus - Feel Good Design

by Maryam Miller

A student designed audio/visual device will help Kura overcome her disabilities and communicate with her family.
Kyra is a disabled three-year-old whose low motor skills, limited speech, and partial hearing loss make talking—even gesturing—difficult. Now, however, she can learn new skills, communicate with her family and teachers, and even say, "Hi, Daddy," thanks to a device designed, built, and tested by a five-person team of electrical and computer engineering seniors at Iowa State University.

Students at ISU and other schools are designing their final projects for more than just a grade. They are developing real-world skills like the fundamentals of teamwork, communication, hands-on experience, and how to work with a client. They are also making it possible for disabled children to communicate, see, and hear more effectively.

The device designed for Kyra is made up of six images on a board that correspond with brief audio messages. When Kyra presses a colored button beneath the image she selects, a light signals and her message is played. All of the images and messages can be changed as Kyra develops different needs.

"She can press a button when her dad comes home from work that says, 'Hi, Daddy,'" says Hau-Chun Khor, a senior involved in the project. "Or she can ask for her teddy bear or a glass of milk. We brought the device to Kyra's preschool and she was really excited to play with her new toy. She even started to show her teacher how to use it."

The program, called Engineering Proj-ects in Community Service (EPICS) for Kids, got its start in 1995 at Purdue University, in 1997 at Iowa State, and is now being developed at several other engineering schools around the United States. Participation in the program at Iowa State is currently limited to eight students on two teams, though the program's popularity and high ratings from students will likely lead to its expansion.

Engineering professor Robert Anderson, the students' advisor, says that they usually feel a tremendous sense of satisfaction by helping needy children with the skills they have learned.

"EPICS for Kids is perfect for our senior design education effort," says Anderson. "The EPICS teams have a child as a client who really needs their expertise."

The children are also a good source of motivation for the engineering seniors who frequently suffer from "senioritis," he says. "These children motivate our EPICS teams to design devices that will truly meet their needs." Anderson's top priority, though, is that the students complete every stage in the development and production of their designs.

EPICS teams have also produced a display device that will help four-year-old Jeff who suffers from cerebral palsy. A mounted display close to his face will play different images and voice mechanisms, helping him to focus his eyes on the various images.

"I think EPICS is a terrific project for engineering seniors," says Julie Anderson, who worked on Kyra's communication device. "I wish all the engineering departments would get involved in this program. It's just an amazing feeling when you present the device you created to the child it's going to help."


Maryam Miller is a Prism editorial intern.

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