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Library classes for kids provide hands-on science, engineering learning


December 13, 2017

HENRY HODGESON observes as Ward Christman unwraps an egg to find out how it fared after he dropped it from the top of a ladder.

As Ward Christman smashed egg after egg at the Sweet Home Public Library Dec. 6, his young audience cheered enthusiastically.

It was another episode in Christman's monthly class, "Mechanisms: Simple Machines from Leonardo da Vinci to High Tech," for children in the third through fifth grades. The class is held 2:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. on the first Wednesday of the month through June.

This day's finale was to test creations designed by the young class participants to protect an egg from a 10-foot drop.

Perched on a ladder, Christman dropped the eggs onto concrete from successive heights.

The last test of the day started at the top of the ladder.

"The cool thing about this design is it controls the direction it's going to fall," Christman told the kids as he inspected a contraption shaped something like a paper kite on a framework of straws. The egg was tucked away in a pod of tape.

But, it didn't work.

"It's pretty cool," said Landon Savri, 10, as he worked on his project to protect an egg. "But so far, doing this egg thing might be impossible."

About a dozen children tried to come up with a solution, but it turned out no one was able to save an egg.

"It kind of ties into the overall class, a mechanical engineering class for young people," Christman explained.

His is one of two classes the library is hosting with the help of volunteers.

Randy Roberts is working with children in the sixth through eighth grades using Lego educational materials to build and design various machines. That program has been held at 1:30 p.m. two Saturdays per month. About a dozen children typically attend.

"I think it's going really, really well," said Library Director Rose Peda of the classes. "They get to experience and learn different mechanisms and mechanics. They get experience with that in a safe environment."

The children draw out plans, build models and look at why things worked or don't work, she said.

"We talked about what you have to engineer for in a mechanism: wear and stress," Christman said. "There are different ways to solve those types of issues."

The egg project looked at how to solve impact stress, Christman said. The exercise was meant to be a fun experience for the kids while trying to find a way to protect the eggs.

"We did learn a lot," Christman said. They talked about the strengths of different materials, but on this day they were limited to tape, paper and straws.

Other materials – balloons or packing peanuts, for example – might work better, Christman said, but resources are often limited.

Christman said the class was initially intended as a preparation for a more advanced robotics program, but children in this age group "don't quite have the attention span."

Instead, the classes spend time doing short projects, and he introduces important engineering concepts to the children.

Christman isn't an engineer, he said. "My dad was an engineer. He had a construction company. When I was a kid, he moved to software."

With a big shop available, his father did a great job showing him how to make and do different things, Christman said. It piqued his curiosity.

Most children don't have access to that kind of shop, Christman said. He hopes this class can serve the same kind of purpose.

Children get caught up in the video game world and their accomplishments in a virtual world, Christman said, and they "kind of lose track of the feeling of victory, accomplishing something in the real world."

They miss out on those feelings of pride and enjoyment, he said.

Christman worked in his parents' software company when he was in high school, he said. He majored in music in college, and then worked for Symantec for 20 years in data analysis and information technology, with a lot of technical experience.

His interest in engineering has been at a personal level, but it's behind his most recent efforts. Symantec laid him off from work.

Now he's putting together a C&C plasma cutter and starting his own metal cutting business, similar to 3D printing but working with metals, Christman said.

"We have a great library staff," he said. "And I really appreciate all the things they bring to the community for our kids."

That's why he wanted to help out at the library, he said.

Roberts, who works with the teenagers, is a retired engineer with Honeywell Aerospace. He spent 30 years with the company working on space systems, rockets and space shuttles.

As engineering director, he oversaw a staff of 500 engineers. Among their work was the "glass cockpit," the name given affectionately to space shuttle cockpit upgrades to LED lighting and flat panels.

His library program is based around a Lego-designed education program that includes everything from software to robotics competitions.

The students use basic machine building blocks, like cams and gears, to create mechanisms that solve specific problems.

They measure physical distances, measure time, pull something uphill, lift heavy objects and other tasks.

Those are the same kinds of things engineers do, Roberts said.

Last Saturday, they built dogs with moving eyes, mouths that opened and tails that wagged.

"These Lego engineers are very creative," Roberts said. How some of the models work isn't always readily clear, he added, and he had to finish building some of them before seeing exactly how the parts worked together.

LANDON SAVRI tests out a package he hopes will protect an egg to be dropped from the top of a ladder.

The motivation for the students is varied. For Lego enthusiast David Salyers, it's "mostly getting these parts I can't afford to get."

For Molly Pickens it's about "figuring out how it works."

Roberts retired from Honeywell and moved from Phoenix, Ariz., to Sweet Home in 2007 to live closer to family.

His wife is part of the Friends of the Library, he said. Peda approached him with the idea, and he agreed.

He said Honeywell engineers would host children for a week annually to help get children interested in science and engineering. They would build bridges and drop eggs. Astronaut friends would drop in and give presentations.

It's an opportunity for kids to take a look at real science and real engineering, he said. "My engineers loved it. I missed that."


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