WHS students helped 5th grade students learn about engineering with paper airplaines

Fifth grades were launching paper airplanes across their classrooms with high schoolers egging them on and remarkably, no one got in trouble. That’s because it was all a part of the third quarter problem-based learning (PBL) assignment at Freedom Elementary, which required students to design a problem and engineer a solution.
“It was so cool and inspirational,” said Isabelle Ullman, a fifth grader at Freedom. “The high school students helped me because our flags were wrong and we had to use a paper clip to fix them. We also learned that if you threw it gently, it would go farther.”
Fifth graders quickly grasped that this was far more complicated than making and tossing a regular paper airplane.
“We built a structural glider to fly through the air,” said Carl Gervacio, a fifth grader. “It was fun, complicated and cool. I thought that the high school students were helpful. They showed us how making a change could help us with this project.”
The 180 fifth graders surprised the 15 Waynesville High School students, who are all enrolled in Project Lead the Way, an engineering and science-based curriculum at WHS.
“We did this as sophomores at the high school and what impresses me most about these students is their ingenuity,” said Trevor Aldenberg, who plans to major in aerospace engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology this fall.
“These students came up with some really cool designs,” said Bryan Hudson, a senior who also plans to major in aerospace engineering. “Seeing these kids’ imagination at work was fun. They had some cool designs that were very successful.”
Despite some complicated designs, “students worked through them together to engineer a solution,” said Sarah Pagel, a junior.
Some projects resembled traditional paper airplanes, while others were small pieces of paper weighted with a paper clip. Regardless of the design, each team received the same set of instructions and the same kit that included two sheets of paper, two rubber bands, 12 inches of tape, five paper clips, two tongue depressors, a plastic bag, three straws and 12 inches of string.
“This was fun and I would like to do it again,” Ullman said.
“PBLs give kids the chance to think outside of the box and to collaborate,” said Connie Lund, a fifth grader teacher at Freedom. “It makes learning more real-world and engages students. You can see their excitement.”
Teamwork plays a major role in PBLs, especially when students are randomly assigned into groups. “At first, everyone wants their own design to win, but as team members, they have to be open-minded,” said Taylor Power, a senior who plans to major in engineering at college. “Communication and cooperation are as important as the actual hands-on building.”
“My PLTW students did outstanding,” said Bill DeMalade, a high school PLTW teacher. “They did so well that I would welcome the invitation from other elementary schools in our district to do the same. The high school students gained patience from working with kids and enjoyed the experience of being able to teach the younger students.”
The idea for the engineering PBL, “Novel Engineering,” originated with Hillary Sanford; then Lund asked her son David, a second-year engineering student at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, and a former WHS PLTW student, to help with the project. When David wasn’t available, she contacted the high school.
“The high school students are running this program today,” Lund said. “This fits so perfectly with everything our district is trying to do; it provides real-world experience not only for our fifth graders, but also our high school students. This was a win-win.”
While each class had its own spin on the first step, many Freedom students started the PBL by reading “Weslandia” by Paul Fleischman and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. In the story, the friendless Wesley spends his summer vacation creating his own civilization called Weslandia.
Before long, his classmates join him in his cool, utopian world. After reading the story, fifth graders had to find a problem that Wesley faced in sustaining Weslandia, build their solution, write an essay about it and then produce a video about their solution.
Originally students were told they could choose K’nex or Legos to build their solution prototypes, but with so many students and limited supplies, Rachel Rodriguez, a technology integration specialist at Freedom, assigned the students to their kits randomly when they arrived at the library.
“Joshua Jones (a fifth grade student) needs to be an architect,” Rodriguez said. “He had created his design thinking he would have K’nex but when he didn’t get them, he had to make a small hole in a Lego to make it spin. He engineered a solution on the fly. That’s what problem-solving is all about. It’s taking the supplies you have and creating a solution from what is available.”  
The lessons extend far beyond the paper airplanes flying through the air or the K-nex and Lego projects; students mastered multiple steps and learned that their designs can always be improved upon.
“After testing, nearly every group came back and made modifications,” Lund said. “It’s that critical thinking that takes learning to the next level.”
It will also keep the paper airplanes flying longer and farther each and every time.