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Fifth-graders explore engineering

Mel Flanagan | Monday, September 12, 2011

Notre Dame students teamed up with fifth-graders from the South Bend school district this weekend to play with robotic pets, conduct experiments with LEGO racecars and spark interest in engineering.

Over 300 fifth-graders attended the annual event, “I2D2: Imagination, Innovation, Discovery and Design at Notre Dame,” which took place for the second time at the Joyce Athletic and Convocation Center on Friday.

This “technology discovery day” began because of freshmen engineering students’ robotic pet project, said Victoria Goodrich, director of the first-year engineering program.

“We started a new project last year where they create robotic pets,” she said. “We wanted to have customer input, so we have fifth-graders come up and act as their customers.”

The freshmen engineering students led the children in a discussion on “Irish Pets.” The engineers prompted them with “It would be cool if the Irish Pet could…”

Freshman Eleanor Mershon said the fifth-graders were the perfect mock customers.

“Fifth-graders don’t really think about what’s possible and what’s not,” she said. “They have a bigger imagination, which let’s us be more innovative and creative.”

Graduate students in the Engineering, Science and Technology Entrepreneurship Excellence Masters (ESTEEM) program led the fifth-graders in a science experiment.

The children built LEGO racecars and sent them down a ramp, measuring how far they could go. They then added weight at different intervals to test whether the heavier or lighter car could go farther.

“It gives them a way to get into experiments because they have to predict what they think is going to happen, then they build a model, test it and then draw conclusions,” ESTEEM student Jordan Bryant said.

The children were also encouraged to build their own LEGO towers.

Freshman Samuel Leung said the tower building project was meant to show the fifth-graders what they can achieve.

“I think it allows them to see how much fun just building anything can be,” he said. “It lets them see the variety of things you can do with science — not just what they usually see in the classroom.”

After the program, Goodrich said they sent the students home with materials so they can continue to experiment beyond the classroom.

“Studies say students start to think about their career paths in middle school,” she said. “The more we can expose these students to science and engineering the better.”

Ted Keeler, a fifth-grade teacher at Jefferson Intermediate, said the discovery day exposed the children to more than science and engineering.

“A lot of these kids don’t get exposed to a university, and they don’t see the goal they’re shooting for,” Keeler said. “Our school is close to 75 percent below the poverty line, so it’s exposure to see where they can go with their education.”