8 engineering students holding prototypes.
Testing curriculum at the Lawrence Hall of Science with the help of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Undergraduate Summer Interns & Lawrence Hall of Science Teen Volunteers.

So, what did you do this summer? Such a simple question, possibly one you may even ask to break the ice or fill an awkward silence. My answer to this question, however, is anything but simple. In short, this summer I rolled up my sleeves and jumped into the exciting world of education research!

I like to describe myself as a mechanical engineer by education and an educator at heart. Even as an undergraduate and graduate student in mechanical engineering, I knew I most likely wouldn’t end up working as an engineer; instead, I aspired to be an engineering professor. Teaching has always been a passion of mine. My professional experience in curriculum development and teaching over the past 8 years has guided me along the path toward realizing my dream; starting my doctoral studies in the Graduate Group in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education (SESAME) program at UC Berkeley in 2016 provided a big push forward.

TT-4 mini tensegrity developed in the BEST Lab, UC Berkeley.

Students often separate the science they learn in the classroom from the science they observe in the world around them. I believe that engineering design can bridge this gap by allowing students to apply the “classroom” science to real-life applications in a fun and exciting way. I am especially interested in studying the use of argumentation and the engineering design process as a basis for science teaching and learning. The key question is: If students go through the engineering design process — from proposing designs to testing and revising designs — can asking students to defend their design decisions throughout the design process foster a deeper understanding of the science content?  I look forward to answering these questions under the guidance of my advisor, Dr. Alice Agogino.

I kicked off my summer break by finalizing the curriculum I first developed as a class project to make it implementation-ready. I bought and prepared the supplies needed. I wrote facilitator’s guides for each experiment outlining learning goals and correlating Next Generation Science Standards, step-by-step instructions, and probing questions facilitators should ask. I also created engineering design notebooks for students to record their observations and conclusions as they completed the experiments.

The curriculum, focusing on energy and energy transformation, is centered around answering the driving question “Would a fragile payload be safer if dropped in a rigid device or a flexible device?” The curriculum utilizes tensegrities (pictured on the right) — the same structures scientists at the BEST (Berkeley Emergent Space Tensegrities) Lab at UC Berkeley and NASA are studying for space exploration! The curriculum includes experiments for students to investigate potential energy, kinetic energy, and energy transformation and their role in designing a “safe” lunar lander. Experiments include testing tensegrities, exploring gravitational potential energy with balls and playdough, investigating kinetic energy with balls and ramps, and studying elastic potential energy with bungees and boxes. After exploring the concepts of potential and kinetic energy individually, students analyze slow-motion video of the collision of flexible tensegrities and the ground. I would like to acknowledge Drs. Michelle Wilkerson and Lloyd Goldwasser for their guidance during the design of the curriculum as part of their class projects; as well as Lee-Huang Chen and members of the BEST Lab for preparing multiple tensegrities.

Investigating the relationship between an object’s velocity and mass and its kinetic energy using different balls and ramps.
Investigating the relationship between an object’s velocity and mass and its kinetic energy using different balls and ramps.

Once the curriculum was ready to implement, it was time to test it out!  The first opportunity to test my curriculum was at the Lawrence Hall of Science, as part of the Phenomenal Physics Sunday Funday.  To help facilitate the activities, a fellow SESAME graduate student, Laleh Coté, the Undergraduate Internship Coordinator at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, connected me with six undergraduate summer interns. Testing my curriculum at the Lawrence Hall of Science not only provided me with an opportunity to observe kids interacting with tensegrities and the activities I designed but also afforded the young visitors at the Lawrence Hall of Science the opportunity in engage in STEM activities and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Summer Undergraduate Interns and Lawrence Hall of Science Teen Volunteers the opportunity to participate in STEM outreach. Overall, it was a mutually beneficial experience for all who participated.

The second opportunity to test my curriculum was as a two-day STEM workshop as part of the Pinoleville Pomo Nation Summer Academy in Ukiah, California. Fourth through eighth grade students started the workshop by assembling the tensegrities they would test and making an initial prediction on whether a fragile payload would be safer if dropped in a tensegrity or a rigid device. Students then investigated the concepts of gravitational potential energy, kinetic energy, and elastic potential energy individually and recorded their observations and conclusions in their engineering design notebooks. Once students completed each of the activities, students dropped the tensegrities and rigid device from the same height and analyzed slow-motion video of the impact of each with the ground. Knowing that energy must be conserved, students revisited the question posed at the beginning of the workshop.

I wrapped up my summer by examining students’ engineering design notebooks to better understand the role the tensegrities and experiments played in transforming the way students thought about the concept of energy. The analysis of the engineering design notebooks along with observations made while implementing the curriculum helped me understand how to better utilize the tensegrities within the curriculum.  Now it is time to start the cycle all over by testing the refined curriculum. I look forward to repeating the cycle until I am fully satisfied with my curriculum.

An engineer by education and an educator at heart, Deniz Dogruer is merging her two passions as a PhD student at UC Berkeley studying Engineering Education. In addition to her doctoral studies, she also works for a start-up, Squishy Robotics, which she co-founded.