A novel project: Literature, engineering collide in middle school outreach

GPA students pose alongside their engineering project.

3 min read

The Harvard Ed Portal in Allston was buzzing with the excitement of young minds on Feb. 5, as seventh grade students from the Gardner Pilot Academy (GPA) showcased “novel engineering projects.”

The event, coordinated by Kathryn Hollar, Director of Community Engagement and Diversity Outreach at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, along with GPA faculty members, exposed middle school students to the engineering design process. The cross-disciplinary project also provided an opportunity for these young thinkers to be mentored by Harvard engineering concentrators.

The impetus for the project was a new curricular unit based on Linda Sue Park’s novel “A Long Walk to Water,” explained seventh-grade teacher Katherine Atkins Pattinson. The book’s two main story lines support the Water for South Sudan Foundation. Salva Dut is a Sudanese “lost boy” in search of his family, and Nya, is a girl who walks hours on end each day to retrieve drinking water.

“Students read these books that are so sad, but wonder ‘so then what?’ We decided to empower students to be the problem solvers, to aid in creation versus just applying skills,” Pattinson said.

The seventh graders read “A Long Walk to Water” in the fall and, at the start of the new semester, had the chance to choose teams and pick a client from the novel. They came up with ideas to help Salva in his travels or Nya to have clean water.

One group of students presented a water filtration system made with layers of charcoal, pebbles, and sand. During their presentation, they demonstrated the device by emptying a cup of dirty water into their system and pouring out clear water.

“You think charcoal is going to mess up the water, but it takes the contaminates out. This could help Nya and her village not get sick from the lake water,” explained seventh-grader Alex Arevalo.

Other novel ideas ranged from bug zappers to combat malaria, to many iterations on shoes made of recycled materials. One student group of girls constructed sandals made from used plastic water bottles, a group of boys, including Francisco Sosa, constructed a pair of sneakers from cardboard and foam that remarkably resembled Nike Jordans.

“The girl in the story gets hurt by thorns in her feet. We wanted to make a thick sole and we thought the shoes should be waterproof,” Sosa said.

When asked what he learned from the project, he responded, “It’s better working in a group than working alone.”

Read more about the project and the students’ novel ideas at