Collaboration with the Physical Education Department

(The fourth in our student blog series comes from Nolan in 11th Grade, and gives the final update on a project that was begun last year.)

Last year, the focus of the Advanced Engineering I group (juniors and seniors) of the Providence Engineering Academy was statics, or the branch of physics associated with objects at rest. As a way to explore this topic, the members of the Engineering Academy collaborated with the Providence Physical Education Department. Their goal was to create versatile wooden boxes that could function in many different ways: an obstacle course, a balance beam, or a step-up box, for example. In this way, the engineering students created a system that would not only benefit the P.E. program, but would also help them learn more about statics, since the structure would have to be able to withstand the use of the junior highers (not breaking or sliding on the grass when jumped on, while having multiple uses).

The first box shown in a virtual assembly

The second box shown translucent, interior strength wall visible

This first step of this project was to create paper models of the boxes, to see how everything would fit together. After Mr. Meadth, the director of the Engineering Academy, approved the designs, the team shifted to using an online program called Onshape. Onshape is a design tool used to create realistic models of objects. This CAD technique allowed the budding engineers to visualize their designs of the boxes further and make adjustments where needed. Once the “CADing” was complete, it was time to start producing and assembling the actual boxes.
Mr. Meadth checks the fit of the first two pieces of one box, as
students look on
The students wrestle with the heavy pieces, sliding them into place
Incorporating the “box joint” technique (resembling a three-dimensional puzzle, used for strength), the two large boxes were finally completed after lots of hard work from last year’s juniors and seniors. Each box comprised approximately nine pieces, weighed about 120 pounds, and had volumes of 80 and 48 cubic feet, respectively. Another fun touch added to these boxes was a grid of four inch squares cut into sides of the boxes, allowing them to be connected together with beams. These boxes are oddly shaped, one like a cube cut along the diagonal and the other like a cube with a rectangular chunk missing, which only adds to their versatility.
An almost completed box, missing two faces and the inner wall
Fast-forward three months: two
amazing boxes just as planned!
Since these boxes were created last year, they have had much use from the junior highers. Mr. Mitchell, the P.E. teacher, says that he is “very grateful that the Engineering Academy did this,” and that “these boxes really enhance the fitness pursuits and the program as a whole.” Judging by the frequency of use and Mr. Mitchell’s gratefulness, this project was a resounding success. Great work, Providence Engineering Academy!
A grateful Mr. Mitchell urges his students on as they create
innovative workout routines

When Things Go Wrong, Could You Lend Me a Hand?

There’s a great deal of discussion right now in educational circles about the positive benefits of failure. You don’t have to look far to find TED talks, psychological reviews, and blog articles on why it’s okay–and even beneficial–to fail. Failure, we read, makes us stronger, fights against complacency, and recommits us to our goals. The warnings are shouted loudly: Parents! Don’t shield your kids from failure! Our own faculty member, Carri Svoboda, shared an article earlier this year about why women in particular might be afraid to fail.

The Foundations of Engineering II class in the Providence Engineering Academy were recently given a new project to wrestle with: design and build a robotic prosthetic arm. Using metal motors and controls for the forearm frame, they then had to 3D print a functional palm, fingers, and thumb. No instructions, and nothing off-the-shelf. Oh, and with one more twist–the entire thing was made double size.

James and Zach prepare the Pink Team’s hand

Isaiah and Kaitlyn working on the finishing touches

So what happens when you give a room full of budding engineers a bunch of robotics parts and computers and a 3D printer? Well, for one, a lot of failure. Dead ends and broken components are commonplace. The line of code that worked yesterday doesn’t work today. The team member that needed to design their part in time just doesn’t. Control wires break. Batteries die. Entropy seems to work harder than its usual self.

And that’s okay!

Davis shows Alan his giant metal forearm; the green boxes down
the side are the motors to control the 3D-printed fingers

The teams worked hard for seven weeks. During this time, they also visited PathPoint, a nearby organization dedicated to working with those needing assistive technology–the original inspiration for this robotic limb project. The direct experience with those who daily use technology to overcome their difficulties was very moving.

The whole group visiting PathPoint, non-profit working here in
Santa Barbara with those needing assistive technology

When all was completed, the four teams loaded up into the school vans, and headed over to the San Roque campus. Their giant articulated hands waved a cheery hello to cars driving by, fingers flexing and twitching in eerie mimicry.

Pedro shows the Yellow Team’s code to a
Lower School student

James checks the workings of his pink articulated fingers

The class presented their designs to the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th Grades across two days. On the first day, failure was the name of the game, as every team experienced the frustration of things going wrong. To name just a few of the dozens of problems:

  • A control line connecting a motor to a finger broke or came untied.
  • A stop keeping a finger from bending backward broke away.
  • An elastic band returning the finger to neutral position broke.
  • A remote control, necessary for demonstration, would not “pair” with the onboard computer.
  • Another remote control was left behind in the engineering classroom!
Nolan, chief coding specialist for the
White Team

A myriad of challenges–yes! More importantly, how did the students respond?

  • They switched to manual operation instead of motor-controlled.
  • They took extra time to talk to their elementary-aged guests about 3D printing and robots.
  • They used tape and scrap pieces to rebuild a finger stop.
  • They retied control lines, anchoring them with bolts and washers.
  • They avoided focusing on the problems, and drew their audience’s attention to what was working.
Our 5th Grade teacher, Mrs. Suleiman, shared her highlight of the experience: “Hearing the students talk about the ‘failures’ that happened as they were designing the hands, and watching them deal with problems that occurred during their demonstration.”

Lower School students take a turn wiggling the giant fingers
back and forth with the remote control

The students themselves reflected on this very same idea a few days later:

Pedro: “There will always be failure. Failure is good. You learn from it.”

Zach: “Perhaps it is not our mistakes that are the true failures, but the ways that we handle our mistakes that are.”

Alan: “The point of this isn’t about how many failures we have, but how we deal with them.”

Isaiah: “All this goes to say that every problem has a solution. You just have to be willing to persevere.”

And persevere they did. On the second day of presenting, most of the kinks had been worked out. With smiles on their faces, our 9th and 10th Graders talked at length about their coding and CAD. The elementary students were able to take turns at the controls and wiggle those giant fingers back and forth. What a joy to see older students inspiring the younger ones with warmth and kindness!

Nolan helps our Lower School students
operate the arm

Our closing thoughts come from Sydney (9th Grader), who wrote some powerfully encouraging thoughts for all of us:

“I know that even in my academic journey at Providence, I have failed many times… This seems like the world can end, yet once you rise up and decide to learn from those failures, you really do learn the most… Through the project of making a robotic hand, I understand that failing is normal and is bound to happen at some point… I have learned that I need a team or a group who can help me when I fail. I need to give myself grace when I do fail… I am grateful for this experience and the hand that was our outcome, even if it was losing a few nuts and bolts by the end. Great work, team!”

Tension + Integrity = Tensegrity

The Providence Engineering Academy seeks every year to put skills to use for the benefit of the community. From designing playground equipment to running science lessons, “we have an obligation to turn our skills outward to the world around us; we learn not for our own sakes” (quoted from the Engineering Academy application).

This year, the Advanced Engineering I students took on a challenge from our very own fitness guru, Scott Mitchell. Mr. Mitchell, who teaches middle school P.E. and runs our outdoor education program, is passionate about his craft. He wants students to understand the human body, in terms of both structure and motion. Mr. Mitchell has long used tensegrity structures as an analogy to help students visualize these principles.

What’s a tensegrity structure, you ask? While a formal definition is somewhat elusive, you know it when you see it. Popularized by the architect Buckmister Fuller and his student, sculptor Kenneth Snelson, these structures feature “compression members floating in a sea of tension.” Still confused?

Here’s an animated GIF from Wikipedia’s page:

The engineering class began with some small models, using elastic bands for the tension elements and wooden dowels for the compression struts.

Victor with the most simple of all tensegrity structures: three sticks
not touching
Victor and Todd with a six-member icosahedron
Josh finds a new use for the 12-stick version

As simple as these look, they take a great deal of effort to plan and assemble. But this was not the end goal; our class aimed to build a giant version of the icosahedron, with compression members 8 feet long!

Attempt 1:

A lot of knots tied to create 24 rope members. Attached lag bolts to 20 lb beams. Got it together and realized that everything was way too loose. Too much sag. Took it apart.

Alena carefully loops the non-slip knot over the bolt
Ben gets those bolts secured
Inital success and exuberance, but everything is far too loose

Attempt 2:

All rope connections shortened by 5 inches to tighten things up.  Unfortunate result: humanly impossible to pull together. Mr. Mitchell attempted to complete the final connections under great duress. Failure, bent bolts, and an abandoned attempt.

Attempt 3:

Straightened out bolts. Loosened all rope lengths by 2 inches. Realized that we can do this the easy way, working with the structure and not against it. Beams held in different orientation. Pulled it all together, but some bolts bent again. Much tighter, much easier, good result!

Colby and Todd compare the 8-foot version to the 12-inch!

Attempt 4:

Practice makes perfect! Rechecked all ropes, and found a few that were too long. Replaced all bolts with thicker ones twice as strong in bending. Worked in new orientation and got it together in under 10 minutes! (Compare this video to the last.)

Mr. Meadth tests it out before anyone else–in the name of safety,
of course!

Todd climbs inside once everything is approved

Eva’s turn!

In case it’s not clear from the pictures and videos alone, it has to be emphasized that none of the wooden beams you see are touching each other. Each of them is “floating in a sea of tension”, held in place by the 24 ropes. This is despite the fact that the entire structure weighs about 160 lb (73 kg).

Here’s another interesting observation: in the interest of safety, we strapped a force gauge to the ropes, and measured 150 lb of tension. (These ropes are rated up to 300 lb, so no problem!) But when Mr. Meadth climbed up on top, weighing about 155 lb himself, the rope tension only increased to 190 lb. How fascinating that 155 lb of live weight does not increase the rope tensions by that amount.

In fact, three people at one time were able to climb up on the structure (totalling more than 300 lb), but the max load reading never exceeded 250 lb, with no evidence of any structural problems.

It’s stable, folks! It beautifully and naturally distributes extra load all around to find equilibrium, much like the human body. Even as it moves, it naturally corrects, distorts, and stabilizes. Watch Todd roll a few feet in the following video.

Needless to say, Mr. Mitchell was delighted with the outcome, and brought his middle school P.E. students over to see, touch, and feel its dynamic responses. He taught them that the wooden beams are analagous to our bones, and the tensioned ropes are like our ligaments and tendons and muscles. Inspired by the work of Anatomy Trains, it’s easy to see what happens when our bodies are injured or out of alignment.

Great work, students! Keep on dreaming, designing, calculating, and serving others! Please share this article freely with friends and family.

A good day’s work!

MS Science & Engineering Expo 2018

The annual Middle School Science & Engineering Expo was a huge success once again, thanks to the hard work and positive attitudes of so many students, parents, teachers, and staff. This year’s theme of The Human Machine inspired a range of hands-on explorations, from Masa and Cameron’s tennis and baseball clinic, to Heidi and Ella’s eye dissection, to robotic prosthetic hands built by the Intro to Engineering class.

Harry, Ruby, Isabela, and James show off their robotic hands

Elementary students get in on the action!

Masa shows Mr. Sunukjian how it’s done!

Mr. Alker worked hard with every 8th Grade student over a period of several weeks to hone their demonstrations to perfection. With such a rich inspiration as the human body itself, students were well able to explore athletics, biology, physics, and engineering.
Never too young to begin!  Providence class of  2033?

Mr. Alker explains the human lung to a captive audience

Maya walks her family through the inner workings of
the human digestive system

Zach, Isaiah, and Sam with their lung test apparatus

Mr. Meadth also brought some high school engineering students to show off their recently completed gliders. High school 3D printers were running hot all the while, courtesy of Todd and Alena, producing Providence keychains for our guests.
Mr. Hurt, high school science teacher, measures his heart rate
alongside Ava

Heidi and Ella showing the inner workings of a cow’s eyeball,
much to the delight of visiting parents

Todd and Alena busily keeping those
printers running on behalf of the high
school Engineering Academy

With sweet treats provided by parent volunteers (thank you!) and Mrs. Luy welcoming guests at the gate, there were plenty of smiles all around. Good things are happening at Providence! For more information about middle school science, please contact Mr. Alker. For more information on our engineering programs, please contact Mr. Meadth. Don’t forget to check out the other articles on this blog, and subscribe for automatic updates.
Ella helps two elementary students fill out their scavenger hunt

Abby and Liza calculated the energy delivered in tasty snacks

Lily taught how music affects heart rate