Tower Hill School (DE) students tackle challenges that introduce engineering principles in an elective course called Engineering Bootcamp. Concepts like stress, strain, torque, and stability have real meaning as students stack textbooks on towers they created from PVC pipes and twine. For another project, the concept of aerodynamics underlies the performance of stomp rockets constructed with Tyvec paper, duct tape, and PVC tubing. In other words, students learn by prototyping, testing, and refining. The learning has immediate context and impact beyond the classroom, though. Just this past year, for example, students learned about thermodynamics in the “Heat for Habitat Challenge,” which called for them to design, build, and test solar space heaters. The instructor, however, introduced a design constraint: the heaters had to be cheap and easy to build so that any person living in a Habitat for Humanity house or other subsidized housing could follow the instructions and have affordable heat in his/her house. This year, students are building musical instruments, then testing them with tuners, which they also must construct, using Arduino microcontrollers.
Peter Rust, an active inventor and mainstay teacher in the science department, designed Engineering Bootcamp to immerse students in design thinking, a powerful problem solving framework that emphasizes prototyping early and often. As Rust points out, “The real learning happens when a prototype does not behave as expected. Students ‘fail forward’ by refining their ideas and making better prototypes.” Students leave the course with an academic introduction to engineering complemented by firsthand experience in iteration, the creative work that makes engineering come alive.