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Engineer in the Classroom: MacGyver meets Mousetrap

You have probably heard of the Engineering Open House (EOH), previewed here, but you may not have heard of Engineer in the Classroom (EITC). It began nearly 20 years ago as the brain child of Rexlyn Nicole. In 1999, she assembled a team of engineers in Decatur to develop a program to introduce engineering to grade school students. The requirements were fairly straight forward; it needed to be sustainable and replicable, while highlighting engineering as a career.

The program revolves around a Rube Goldberg device. Rube’s are a series of very intricate chain reactions comprised of many small, simple steps; strung together to accomplish a rather menial task. You may have heard of the game Mousetrap, or remember this Honda commercial. The idea is to introduce Newton’s laws of motion, as well as potential and kinetic energy concepts to fifth graders in a way that is visual and tactile. The kids research, design, build and test their concepts with the assistance of the engineer and teacher.

The first competition was in early 2000, with 23 Decatur area fifth grade classes participating. The program was a huge success and ran the next five years with growing interest. In 2005 the team approached Engineering Open House to see about showcasing the program along with the nationwide high school Rube Goldberg Competition. In 2006, the program expanded to include Springfield to test the replicability. In 2007, it spread to Champaign, Peoria, and Bloomington-Normal. Sadly, Bloomington-Normal failed to launch; but with four areas up and running, it was time to turn the EOH Showcase into the statewide competition. This year, IDOT is leading a pilot program in Paris, IL; which if successful could lead to areas sponsored by IDOT at all of their regional offices. The EITC program finally received 501c3 status last year, and is hoping to go nationwide.

You may be wondering if there are similar programs elsewhere… the short answer is no. There are other programs but they come with a high cost to the schools. EITC is unique in that it is free for the school. It is completely administered by volunteer engineers from the community. The materials are sourced from old junk that is destined for the trash heap. The most expensive piece is the plywood base, which is often donated and can be reused year after year. In addition to the Rube device, students research a given topic and write a report. This year’s topic was Apollo 8, the first mission to orbit the moon; and the goal of the Rube was to have an object orbit another at least three times.

This year I had the privilege of working with Mr. Heinold’s class at Lincoln Trail Elementary in Mahomet. We spent about two hours per week for six weeks building and preparing for the local competition that took place on February 24th. I am proud to report that Mr. Heinold’s class took 1st place among Mahomet, Champaign, and Urbana. Unfortunately, they were bested by a Peoria team at the EOH showcase on March 10th, but the kids got to spend the day taking in all the cool demonstrations and exhibits at the EOH so all-in-all not a bad Friday.

If you are an engineer looking to volunteer for next year, please see below for contact information. If you are a teacher or parent of young children, the program really is a great opportunity for the kids. They are introduced to challenging concepts, teamwork, and possibly a future in engineering. To date, it is estimated some 20,000 fifth graders have gone through the curriculum. Two students have even gone full circle and are now volunteering as engineers in Decatur. Contact your school or 5th grade teachers about being a part of the program next year.

Rexlyn Nicole – [email protected] National Coordinator
Monty Cherry – [email protected] Illinois Coordinator
Chris Gutkowski – [email protected] Champaign/Urbana Coordinator
Tandra Wisnasky – [email protected] Mahomet Coordinator

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