Carlisle School’s science and engineering lab is a hit 

by Karina Coombs

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Leads Emily Flavin, Andy Blake, Abby Scheinberg, John Bohn and Lily Langrind listen to the director. (Photo by Jane Hamilton)

Kindergarten to eighth grade are using the Carlisle School’s new science and engineering lab to work on a variety of curriculum-specific engineering projects. Furnished and equipped with the help of generous donations from the Carlisle Education Foundation (CEF), the lab opened in early 2013 and is located in a former preschool classroom of the Robbins Building. 

Lab assistant Ginny Lamere facilitates the engineering instruction, working part-time, with half her salary funded by the CEF and the other out of the school’s budget. Lamere, an electrical engineer with a few patents under her belt, had long envisioned a program like this at the Carlisle School, but never imagined herself in her current position. In addition to working with the school for a number of years as a member of the Technology Committee, Lamere started the after-school STEAM (previously called STEM), program, which has been running since 2005. (See, “Carlisle School promotes STEAM power,” January 15.) STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, art and math and is increasingly found in schools as a way to encourage students to pursue these fields. 

While Lamere does not have a traditional teaching background, her strong engineering experience and enthusiasm for the subject have provided students and teachers with a number of opportunities to enhance a traditional elementary and middle school education with engineering. “My job is to be teaching teachers and kids [about engineering],” said Lamere, explaining that all grades learn the engineering process of design, build, test and redesign with a goal toward improvement. Students are told that projects do not need to work the first time for them to be a success, nor does she expect them to work the first time. All grades will make at least one visit to the lab during the school year, with many making multiple visits.

Projects are challenging and fun

Excited kindergarten students recently displayed their finished Valentine’s Day mailboxes, which they had designed and built in the lab. First graders have started working on designing animal shelters for chipmunks, looking at natural versus synthetic materials. Lamere explained that second-grade students would be designing and building Iditarod dog sleds out of Legos.

In addition to researching projects independently, Lamere works with teachers to identify grade- and curriculum-specific projects for kindergarten through grade two, and for middle school grades six through eight. Third- through fifth-grade students use a science-based STEM curriculum called Know Atom, which specifies the projects used to cover a particular concept. 

As part of an “Energy in Motion” project, third graders recently designed and built windmills. Not only did the blades have to spin when a fan was pointed at them, but they had to spin with enough force to raise a small bucket that was attached to the rotating shaft and filled with varying amounts of marbles. Lamere explained that students went from not being able to spin the blades, to experimenting with how many marbles they could lift. The students also had a demonstration in the room with a Clark Farm educator who demonstrated the process of turning fleece into fabric.

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Members of the middle school Robotics Club put their robots through their paces in an obstacle course in the Carlisle School’s science and engineering lab. (Photo by Ginny Lamere)

Fourth-grade students will soon begin working on water-catching storage units, which will be made out of various household materials. Once constructed, the students will fill their catchers with water, weigh them for volume and determine the level of evaporation after a week. “Some kids do better with this kind of learning,” added Lamere. At the end of the project, she will meet with each student to review his or her design. Lamere then asks the class to think about how the design would be different if they could take the best of each and incorporate them into one catcher. Lamere stressed that there is a big emphasis on collaborative learning. Fourth graders will return to the lab later in the year to build their own trebuchet.

Fifth graders are working on complex machines and building cranes. Lamere explained the objective is to create a machine that can move up and down, as well as back and forth. Students are given materials and work collaboratively for several weeks to make functional machines. “I want every kid to feel like they came up with a good idea,” said Lamere. “No two are ever the same.” 

Upcoming projects for the lab will be earthquake-proof housing (tested on a shake table) with sixth graders. Seventh graders will work on creating a mechanical arm, and eighth graders will be working on a heat loss project. “I can’t tell you how much fun it is to be in this room,” said Lamere.

Robotics club, Legos at Lunch

Lamere also runs a robotics club for 25 sixth- through eighth-grade middle school students. Sixth-grade science teacher Wendy Stack initiated the club and the CEF purchased the Lego Mindstorms robot kits. The club has already built its robots and is now working on programming and testing features. “They are excited about [the projects],” said Lamere. She said the robotics project offers a “great mix of skills.” Students are also asked to meet challenges she puts on the lab’s white board and she finds that not only do the students meet them, they ask for more. The robots will eventually make their way through an obstacle course. 

Lamere also holds a Legos at Lunch program for third graders when time permits. The Legos were purchased previously by the CEF and she is thrilled to be making use of them again. “Life is so much fun here.”

Lab equipped through CEF

The lab itself is an impressive space with a vaulted ceiling that suspends electrical power cords and ethernet connections above each of the worktables. Lamere is quick to point out that the tables have cranks so they can be raised and lowered depending on the height of the students using them. Opposite an entire wall of floor-to-ceiling cabinets, labeled by grade and used for storing projects, are counters with four sinks, also of varying height. The lab also has an active board, exhaust hood for chemical reactions, an emergency eyewash and shower station and a prep room. 

Lab garners praise

As the program evolves, it is getting recognition outside of Carlisle. The Carlisle School was chosen to be one of seven Massachusetts schools showcased at the 2013 National Center for Technological Literacy Gateway Symposium held at the Museum of Science. More recently, during a January 9 visit to the school, Secretary of Education Matthew Malone got a first hand look at the engineering room and a number of the student projects. An impressed Malone took to Twitter and Flickr to compliment Carlisle on its “amazing STEAM space.” 

As a result of Malone’s visit, Lamere was put in contact with Bedford's iRobot. She hopes to partner with the robotics company with a presentation and a tour of the Bedford facilities with her robotics club. [Edited 3/6/14 to correct iRobot's location.]∆