Eleven-year-old Juan Nazario had a problem. He had to create a device that moved a potato six feet while using the least amount of force possible.
To make matters worse, Vikki Irvin-Kent, the “owner” of the mythical potato chip factory for which Nazario worked, hovered nearby and kept tabs on his progress. Fortunately, Nazario had Jorge Pozo and Anindita Basu, scientists from Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), on hand to help.
Nazario and Irvin-Kent, who in real life is Nazario’s science teacher, were playing out an engineering scenario to help fifth graders learn basic engineering concepts involving simple machines.
To move his potato, Nazario used a wheel and axle, an inclined plane, and a pulley, trying out four designs over the last six weeks. On Saturday, he and about 60 other fifth graders who have designed similar machines will be at Harvard with their parents to demonstrate what they’ve learned and what they’ve built.
Pozo, a research and education specialist with the school, and Basu, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of David Weitz, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and Applied Physics, are among seven volunteers who have been helping as part of a SEAS outreach program to the Hennigan Elementary School in Jamaica Plain. The program is part of a broader outreach effort led by Kathryn Hollar, director of educational programs for SEAS, that brings Harvard science to local public schools to nurture students’ natural desires to invent and to ignite their interest in scientific discovery.
“We’re here trying to get students to learn more by doing with their hands,” Pozo said. “By us showing them, they know what a simple machine is, they know what an inclined plane is, a pulley …”
Nazario’s class was the first of three for Pozo and Basu during a recent visit. The project helps students with MCAS test preparation, bolstering book learning with hands-on reinforcement.
Hennigan School principal Maria Cordon said the partnership with Harvard is part of a broader strategy at the school to convey a sense of college readiness that brings the elementary school and university students into regular interaction, so the youngsters come to see college as a place they might be some day. It also aligns with Harvard Public Affairs & Communications’ role in cultivating relationships between local schools and Harvard faculty, students, and staff to support teaching and learning.
In addition to acting as role models for Hennigan students, the SEAS scientists and engineers provide Irving-Kent with expertise. As a science teacher, Irvin-Kent said, she welcomes the help with engineering concepts. She also welcomes the help teaching. As Pozo and Basu work with small groups or individual students, Irving-Kent is free to move around the room and look for others who need her.
“This is what engineering is; this is great,” Irving-Kent said. “It opens their eyes to new things.”
To prepare for the exercise, the students studied simple machines for several weeks and then designed their own. They had to build their machines out of materials provided by the class. Some working alone, some in teams, the students used plastic wheels and small pulleys, string, duct tape, piles of books, stools, and plastic cafeteria trays to move their potatoes — represented by plastic paint bottles — the required distance.
Along the way, Pozo, Basu, and others from Harvard asked questions, offered advice, and lent helping hands, as when Pozo hurriedly cut a hole in a cardboard box at Nazario’s direction, as he rushed toward completion moments before Irvin-Kent asked for a demonstration.
Pozo, the first in his family to go to college and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who was wounded while helping a comrade to safety, said that because his background is similar to theirs, it helps the children relate to him and see that college is within their reach.
“I was just like them,” Pozo said. “The opportunities are there, if you want them.”