Thursday, May 26 , 2016, 6:25 am | Fair 52º

Crane Country Day School Engineers Inventive Programs to Teach Science

By Ann Pieramici for Crane Country Day School |

Paper clips, popsicle sticks and pingpong balls were recently employed by the sixth-graders at Crane Country Day School in an effort to better understand the laws of motion.

Using these materials, along with straws, tape and garage door seal, the students built a roller coaster, complete with drops, uphill mounts, loops and curves to test the affects of gravity, momentum, friction, centrifugal force and inertia.

“I learned a lot about physics and how to make things go faster,” John Rigsby Shelburne said.

His classmate Paige Levinson said: “I learned that the loops do not work every time. But when they do, it’s really fun to see the ball land in the can where it’s supposed to!”

“The students have so much fun with this project that they don’t even realize the important lessons they are learning,” Upper School science teacher Janey Cohen said.

Students spend several class periods constructing their coasters, and there’s a lot of trial and error happening during this time. Cohen said that this is when the real learning happens.

When done correctly, the pingpong ball will stay on track through the twists and eventually survive a jump at the end, into a can. Students measure the time it takes the ball to travel and record their data in a comprehensive report that includes a dozen essay questions to ensure they understand the critical lessons behind the loops.

Hands-on learning is a hallmark of the 86-year-old K-8 independent school.

“We know that when the students are engaged, the learning is more powerful,” Cohen said.

tower project
For Crane science teacher Phil Von Phul's tower project, students build towers made with plastic drinking straws. (Crane Country Day School photo)

Her colleague, Phil Von Phul, who has been teaching seventh-grade science at Crane for more than 30 years, agrees that experiential education is critical to success. His class is well known for the “tower project” in which teams of students build towers made with plastic drinking straws. For many years, this has been a lesson in structural engineering, but this year Von Phul collaborated with Upper School art teacher Gretel Huglin-Ridge to bring a creative edge to the engineering.

“In addition to building a strong, tall tower, students were required to stretch their creativity to make the most aesthetically innovative design in the structure, as well as in the landscaping on the base of the tower,” Von Phul said.

Students studied images of skyscrapers around the world and also received a lecture from a local architect and structural engineer.

The results were an impressive collection that included a willowy, white snowflake tower, a whimsical Dr. Seuss-land and a glittery Mount Olympus, complete with tiles replicating solar panels and a hydroelectric power plant.

Seventh-grader Sam Stegall and his team successfully created a Japanese snow garden, making falling snow from clay and fashioning a cherry blossom base from red fluff balls.

“I really liked building the tower, and I learned that it’s most important to have stability in the center as opposed to the sides,” Stegall said.

“The kids work in teams, therefore they are also learning the important lessons of cooperation, collaboration and respect for the opinions of others,” Von Phul said.

The teams compete for the highest, strongest and most innovative tower, yet the students receive individual grades based on their academic reports summarizing what they learned.

The focus on engineering is not limited to Crane’s Upper School. This past December, the kindergartners constructed gingerbread houses made from graham crackers, and the first-grade teachers dedicate a unit to building skyscrapers.

“In addition to being a lot of fun for the students, this lesson incorporates math and geography skills,” first-grade co-teacher Patti Smart said.

Students measure their skyscrapers using various units of standard and metric measurement such as centimeters, meters, inches, feet and yards. The class also incorporates map study skills into the unit as the children view some of the world’s tallest buildings.

“At Crane, we believe the most powerful learning environments balance intellectual rigor with creative expression and these lessons in physics and engineering are prime examples of what we strive to do at our school nearly every day,” Headmaster Joel Weiss said. “They embody a tremendous sense of innovation while introducing some very academic concepts.”

Crane Country Day School is currently accepting applications for fall 2014. Click here for more information.

— Ann Pieramici is a publicist representing Crane Country Day School.

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