Our educational outreach began with an internal brainstorming session to build out a list of materials engineering topics that could be conveyed to grade-school students and that would integrate well with their existing curriculum. We narrowed in on the topic of fractography, the study of material fracture surfaces, due to its inherent hands-on and visual components. We expected these aspects to be helpful in creating an engaging experience for the students and in allowing us to effectively convey engineering concepts.
During the fall semester of 2016 I took a course titled Mechanical Behavior of Engineering Materials at UC Berkeley. The final course project gave students the option to pursue an educational outreach project that focused on engaging with grade school students and introducing them to fundamental principles of materials engineering. The How Things Break kit is a product of my five-student team's approach to this outreach effort. The kit was developed from scratch and user tested to optimize its effectiveness as an educational tool.
Our group was composed of five students. I specifically played the role of project manager and lead designer of the physical kit. I organized meetings and helped drive decisions, while also taking full responsibility for the mechanical design of the kit. Lastly, I co-presented the results of our project to our professor and peers as part of our final project submission.
With fractography in mind, we moved on to a collaborative lesson development session. We first developed a list of potential fractography concepts that we could address including brittle fracture, ductile fracture, crack propagation, fatigue failure, and more. This list of concepts helped us build a framework for our lesson plan development and structure our discussions surrounding the activities that the students could complete. Our concept brainstorming led to an iterative lesson-level brainstorming session. We focused on thinking through potential materials and experiments that could be used to convey the concepts that we came up with. For example, chalk sticks provided a useful medium to demonstrate brittle fracture, while polarizers and pre-notched plastic specimen provided a clear and visibly engaging method to demonstrate how stress concentrations can form in materials. The team collaboratively built out an extensive list of potential lesson materials and then whittled the list down to around ten sets of materials that we felt would be most effective in integrating with our lesson plans and engaging with our student audience.
When developing our lesson plan structure we defined our audience to be middle school students. This was a key step in framing the academic level that would be incorporated into our lesson plans. We also worked to ensure that our outreach would effectively connect with all types of learners. We included hands-on experiments for kinesthetic learners, text-based instructions and picture-based flash cards for visual learners, as well as post-experiment discussion sessions for auditory learners. This strategy allowed us to develop lesson plans that were effective in conveying concepts to students in an exciting way.
With our materials and lessons in mind, I took on the initiative of designing the physical kit that would house our educational materials and provide students with the tools necessary to explore the experimental lessons that we developed. This included providing a hammer for exploring crack propagation in ceramic tiles and a magnifying glass to observe "cupping" on the surface of a steel specimen that had experienced a ductile fracture. Lastly, this initiative included the design of the wooden box that would cleanly house the contents of our lessons (see pictures above and below).
After designing and producing several copies of our kit we were eager to test and further refine our lessons. We worked with a local Bay Area middle school to set up in-class working sessions during which we presented our fractography kit and guided students in working through some of the experiments that we created (see picture on right). We completed two sessions, which allowed us to review feedback and quickly iterate on the design of our kit. For example, during the first session we found that the hammer was a source of distraction for most students - several attempted to use the hammer to break all the materials in the kit rather than following along with our printed instructions. During the second session we addressed this issue by employing a facilitator to be the sole keeper of the hammer and to guide students through the sections of the experiments that required the hammer. Small changes like this led to improved productivity during the second session, which saw most students complete significantly more lesson content than those in the first session.
Overall, the sessions were extremely well received by students and educators alike. At the end of our first session, when asked for feedback on the kit, a student stood up and told the whole class - “I finally found something I do that I excel at but I don’t get in trouble for doing it!” Additionally, the middle school teacher that we worked with told us that our kit meshed "perfectly" with the content that he was teaching. These testimonials helped confirm that we had designed an impactful kit that could be used as an effective teaching tool for middle school educators.