Natasha Wilkerson on Vivify STEM and Balloon Car Challenge
“Kids don’t want to hear about it, they want to do it.”
Natasha Wilkerson studied aerospace engineering in Texas and worked in that field for several years, but through it all her passion has always been education.
While she was working as an engineer she started volunteering in a classroom. She was a little disappointed with how the teachers she was working with were teaching math and science. In general, the way the subjects were being taught wasn’t very hands on and wasn’t relevant to how the students would be applying what they were learning in the real world.
Vivify STEM was born when Natasha and Claire, another aerospace engineer, decided to start an afterschool program to teach the same concepts the other teachers were trying to teach but in a more interesting and interactive way. They now have a site where they sell their curriculum and connect with teachers. Their goal is to get students excited about science and engineering.
One project they’ve used is the Balloon Car Challenge. They use this challenge to connect concepts of Newton's Laws and friction, average speed measurements, and circle measurements all in a way that the students can see what they are learning as not only interesting but also applicable to the real world. In this challenge, the students are taught about rovers. But rather than just tell the students about rovers, the students are asked to make their own rover powered by a balloon.
If you’d like to do it, you first need start with a real world connection. Talk with your students about rovers. Talk about Mars, talk about mechanical engineering, talk about any ways rovers are used in the real world.
Next, separate the students into teams. Generally, three students in each team seem to work the best. After the teams are created, give the students their supplies. You can either give them each a packaged bag of supplies (this works well with younger students), let them get their own supplies from stations set up with supplies, or give them a budget and price everything and let the kids “buy” their supplies. If you choose to let them buy their supplies in this way, it can help you incorporate math into the project.
You can even send the students home and ask them to recycle what they find to use it for the project. They can use bottle caps for wheels, cardboard, CDs, etc. Be creative! It doesn’t have to cost much at all.
Once they have their supplies, the teams need to brainstorm and design what they want their rover to look like. Once that’s finished, they build!
But, building isn’t the end of the project. After building the rover the students should test their project, then fix any problems they see, then retest it. One of the most important parts of the project is letting the students learn from their mistakes. In the end, they should reflect on what went right and what went wrong for them, as well as for the other teams around them.
Natasha suggests splitting the project into at least two class sessions to give the students enough time to work and reflect.
If you’d like to do the Balloon Car Challenge, or other similar projects, definitely check out Natasha’s website! We’ve provided a link below, as well as a free download that provides hints and tricks about how you can apply this sort of teaching in your own classroom. Don’t be afraid to branch out and try STEM. It may sound intimidating at first, but it really can be a simple, inexpensive way to engage students and help them get the most out of what you’re teaching.
Helpful Links and Resources from this Interview:
Natasha’s email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Natasha’s website: vivifystem.com