Monday, April 15, 2013

da Vinci-inspired Angry Bird Launchers | 7th grade History

Back in the spring of 2012 when the Bourn Lab first opened its doors, our 7th grade History teacher Eugenie Paick and Diego designed a project commonly known as the "da Vinci project." In brief, students were challenged to build replicas of da Vinci machines using his original sketches as rough blueprints. Students built everything from the armored car to aerial screws to paddle boats. The project was such a success that it was featured as a cover story in our school's quarterly Full Circle magazine.

This year, as the time for this project approached, Eugenie, Diego and I started meeting regularly to plan out v2.0 of this project, using the lessons learned from the previous year as a starting point. One main driving factor in how we reframed the project was the observation that many students experienced frustration that they spent a lot of time building replicas of machines that were never shown to work in the first place. For example, students who built the aerial screws were disappointed to find out that da Vinci neither built nor tested them and that most likely, these machines would never have worked anyway due to weight constraints.

With this in mind, we now were faced with the challenge of how to incorporate making and engineering into this project, relate it to the topic of Renaissance inventions (specifically da Vinci), and at the same time, have students built machines that actually worked? After some brainstorming, we decided to narrow the focus to a subset of da Vinci machines, in particular those that were designed to launch projectiles such as catapults, trebuchets, and cross bows. Machines like these have a clearly measurable "working" quality, i.e. how far they can throw. Just for fun, we printed a bunch of Angry Birds using our 3D printer and used them as our projectiles because, of course, everyone loves Angry Birds!

In Math class, through Ms. Steele's Armored Car project, our 7th graders had already gotten experience with deconstructing a complex 3D object into 2D shapes. To help scaffold the project a bit more in terms of the mechanics, we also asked students to play the board game Mousetrap during one of their history classes as a way to introduce the types of simple machines. Then we spent a long Flex period to investigate various pre-built models of da Vinci machines and asked them to identify the simple machines within each and note how simple machines can be connected together to create complex mechanisms.

Then, it was onto the main design challenge they had to work on for a week in history. We asked each pair of student to look through a curated set of da Vinci drawings, choose one machine, and use that machine as inspiration for building their own Angry Bird launcher. We suggested that they start by building a non-functional paper prototype to help them work out the major pieces they would need and turn in a list of requested shapes to us.

This process also helped us in terms of managing the work flow for this project because it allowed us to pre-cut an initial starting set of pieces for each group offline, and avoid the problem of wasting precious class time waiting for the laser cutter to cut pieces.With an initial set of building supplies on hand, each group was able to start building and then as they discover additional pieces they need, they worked with Diego or I to draw these out in CorelDraw and send them to the laser cutter.

By the end of the week, every pair of student had some type of Angry Bird launcher built and ready to test. On the Friday before Spring Break, on a beautifully clear and sunny day, we brought the machines out onto the Circle and tested each one's launching ability. What a great way to cap off a week of intense engineering and head home for a relaxing break!

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