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No Kit? No Prob! EiE's MacGyver Finds Alternate Engineering Supplies

Posted by Cynthia Berger on Thursday, August 27, 2015

2015.08.27__Belinda_McKinney_EiE_MacGyver-201240-editedThe popular 1980s TV show “MacGyver” featured a spy who was also an engineer. Facing mortal danger, he’d save the day by creatively repurposing everyday objects, making a sling shot from a bicycle inner tube, or a signal parachute from a ski pole and a handkerchief.

Recently on the blog, we shared the news that a MacGyver for the new millennium is in the worksa TV show loosely based on the original, but featuring a woman engineer.  

But you don’t have to wait for the show! In the world of engineering education, there are quite a few MacGyvers. Today, meet Belinda Kinney, an instructional specialist with the Plano Independent School District (PISD) in Texas.

To Find the Materials You Need, Think Like an Engineer

2015.08.27_EiE_Recycled_Engineering_Materials-707354-editedPISD started to roll out the EiE curriculum three years ago and is working toward a district wide implementation in all 44 elementary schools. “The feedback from teachers has been incredible with respect to learning, engagement, and improved discipline of thought,” Belinda says. “But one thing I also hear is, ‘You need so many materials!’”

Like many districts, PISD holds the line on expenses and must work with only certain vendors. So they don't purchase materials kits, they source their own materials.

When she can't find the exact item she needs, Belinda responds by embracing the MacGyver mindset. “Instead of saying ‘We can’t do this activity,’ I ask, ‘HOW can we do this activity?’” she says. "Once you understand the function of the material you need, you can think of a substitute that will accomplish the same goal.”

Belinda’s Top Five EiE MacGyverisms:

  1. Washers = Pennies: The unit “Catching the Wind: Designing Windmills” calls for 500 washers with an internal diameter of 3/8 of an inch.  But you don’t have to scour home improvement stories for just the right washers. Pennies will work: they’re small, they all weigh the same, and they’re easy to get, since everyone has a penny jar.  
  2. No Mason’s line? Fishing line is fine: Several units call for “mason’s line,” a special kind of string. Ask yourself what you need the line for. Would yarn work? Every classroom has yarn! Or how about fishing line—it’s very strong. Problem solved!
  3. Draw a bead on vials: The unit “Taking the Plunge: Designing Submersibles” calls for “5-dram and 12-dram clear plastic vials” . . .  lots of them.  Can’t find the special vials? Hobby-oriented stores stock inexpensive vials in a variety of sizes; crafters use them to store beads.
  4. Be flexible about screening: The unit “Just Passing Through: Designing Model Membranes” calls for 10” x 10” squares of nylon screen to be used as filters.  Belinda found a big roll of flexible “pet screen” for $7 at a home improvement store and cut it up. “After you cut the squares to size, tape along the edges; you can re-use them year after year,” she says.
  5. Make your supplies stretch: Many activities have student work in pairs or trios. If the experience won’t be compromised, have students work in larger groups; you’ll need fewer materials.

Save Materials . . . and Share Them!

2015.08.27_supply_locker-507618-editedBelinda recommends designating a closet or bin where you can stash whatever promising supplies you come across. “Lockers are great for this!” she notes. “Some of our schools share locker contents across grade levels, and students can contribute or take materials from the lockers as needed.”

So before you throw out that frozen meal tray or that paper towel tube, ask yourself, “Can I use this in my engineering lessons? If the answer is “Yes!’ stash it away . . . and make MacGyver proud.

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Written by Cynthia Berger

Topics: EiE Teaching Tips

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