What One Little Design Challenge Led To

Ashley Bocanegra has a B.S. in Biology and is a PLTW teacher at Liberty High School in Bakersfield, California. Ashley is a Professional Learning Community (PLC) leader, a past and future presenter at the PLTW California State Conference, a senior class co-advisor, and one of the original Liberty High School alumni.

I want to start by saying that being a PLTW teacher has inspired me to change the way I teach and facilitate learning in all my classes. After Core Training for Environmental Sustainability, I felt totally inspired and recharged.

My first group of students was small, only 19 (17 boys and two girls, to be exact). They had all taken Introduction to Engineering Design (IED) and Principles of Engineering (POE) and were very curious about this new class in the engineering pathway. My class was filled with shiny new equipment and eager kids. I remember hoping they were going to be as excited about the curriculum as I was. When I presented my students with their first design challenge, I had no idea about all the amazing things they would come up with. I also could never have imagined how that challenge would stick with them year round and inspire a crowdfunding project.

The concept was simple: Take recyclable materials and build something functional. The purpose was clear: Recycling is not always efficient. My students needed to find a way to alter these materials and use them in a new, functional way. The outcome was fantastic. Students built a sound amplifier for a cell phone, a rainwater collector, and a watertight and buoyant pill box, just to name a few. The conversations we had about plastic really got them thinking: Why are so many products intended for one-time use made of a material that was NOT meant to break down?

After my principal saw the amazing things our PLTW Engineering students were accomplishing, she asked them to present one of their activities to a group of principals from other school sites and district officials. They chose to present the Global Freshwater Distribution activity in which students are challenged to use various tools for accurate and precise measurement to make a scale model of the global distribution of freshwater. Not only did they learn how to select and use tools for measurement including micropipettes, but they also got a greater understanding of just how little potable water there is on our planet. The guests at the presentation were floored. One principal even commented on how this model made her realize how we, as Americans, take access to fresh water for granted. Their presentations inspired other schools in our district to begin offering PLTW Engineering courses.

Later in the school year, we took a trip to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to take a tour of their school of engineering. Students began to notice that all over campus, there were water bottle refilling stations. On the trip home, many students commented that if our school had those, we could drastically reduce the number of plastic water bottles thrown away on a daily basis. The next day in class, we got online and found the refilling stations, and I began work on creating a crowdfunding project requesting two stations. Our project is currently up and has some funding! My students took a simple PLTW design challenge and turned it into a project that has to potential to impact everyone on campus. I could not be more proud!    

The best advice I can give to teachers teaching this course is this: Encourage your kids to see the global impact their designs can make. This course addresses arguably the three most important fields of engineering that have the greatest impact on human life – potable water, sustainable agriculture, and biofuels. Don’t be afraid to let the reins go; when you do, your students will come up with amazing designs and solutions, and the sense of accomplishment will stay with them forever.

PLTW’s blog is intended to serve as a forum for ideas and perspectives from across our network. The opinions expressed are those of this guest author.