CMDS Engineering Lab Teaching Students Failure Is Just Another Try

The new CMDS Engineering Lab is the culmination of a three-year effort that bolsters the STEAM Curriculum and, above all else, introduces its students to the pleasure of making things that work, even if they first have to fail and try again.

Led by instructor Mary Cheairs, the E-Lab is a newly renovated space featuring a clean, modern design. Its natural light-filled room boasts a 1:1 student-to-Macbook ratio as well as two 3D printers, enhanced wireless access and interactive audio/visual capabilities.

Smart storage and layout allows students to quickly access everything they need for their various engineering projects and challenges. The students love the whiteboard tables and swivel stools.

Mrs. Cheairs’ 40-minute E-Lab sessions require students to think quickly and on their feet; most of challenges span only one class period.

A record-breaking 2015-16 Spirit Fund contributed to construction of the E-Lab while a gift from the Gilliland Family Fund, as well as participation in the University of Memphis STEM Ambassador Program, is making its full potential possible.

U of M STEM Ambassadors on campus

The U of M’s STEM Ambassador Program puts undergraduate engineering students in classrooms throughout Memphis to introduce younger students to the world of creative development and engineering. CMDS is the first independent school to participate in the program.

“We are excited to work with CMDS to enhance an already robust STEM curriculum,” says Dr. Richard Sweigard, Dean of the University of Memphis Herff College of Engineering.

The U of M ambassadors are engineering students selected via an application, faculty recommendation and interview process. They participate in monthly training sessions that help them with classroom management and leadership development, among other things. Then they bring those skills – and an extra set of helping hands – to the young students in E-Lab.

CMDS becomes the 11th school citywide, and the third elementary school, to feature U of M’s STEM ambassadors. The program is a key initiative of the West Tennessee STEM Hub.

“Young children with a strong foundation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics will ultimately go on to play an integral role in our nation’s competitiveness and economic stability,” Dr. Sweigard says. “We recognize the importance of a strong STEM foundation and feel that it is an essential component of learning critical thinking and problem-solving skills – both of which are associated with success in an engineering curriculum.”

The family of Jim and Kathryn Gilliland, who have two sons at CMDS, facilitated the connection between the school and Herff College. Through its participation in the ambassador program, CMDS hopes to provide a platform for the broader development of comfort with science and engineering concepts at an elementary level.

“It’s our hope,” says CMDS Head of School Dr. Bryan Williams, “to pioneer with our STEM ambassadors and brainstorm to make engineering more accessible to elementary-age students.”

FUSE simulates realistic engineering challenges

Not only is the CMDS E-Lab an entirely new Encore offering, but it’s also home to a cool new curriculum that has our Upper School students, vocally and visibly, excited about engineering.

Developed by researchers at Northwestern University, the curriculum, dubbed FUSE, is an interest-driven STEAM learning experience during which students participate in a series of hands-on and online challenges. They may choose to build a house or design a roller coaster.

Each FUSE challenge uses a leveling-up model from gaming and is designed to engage the students in different STEAM topics and skill sets. FUSE is currently used at schools in California, Illinois, Ohio and Florida, and CMDS is pleased to be the first FUSE school in our region.

Fourth graders are just beginning to take off with FUSE while 5th and 6th graders are building windmills and designing 3D, laser-cut key chains and LED-lit clothing. Later this semester, with the support of the U of M STEM ambassadors, 6th graders will develop their first-ever entry into the Memphis “Canstruction” Jr. Competition.

From grade-schoolers to biomedical engineers and architects

CMDS Lower School (1st, 2nd and 3rd) students are finding welcome territory in E-Lab with a variety of cross-curricular activities and challenges.

Third graders recently worked as biomedical engineers, designing a device to extract a pebble from an ear. They used pipe cleaners, paper clips, clay, blue dots, dowel rods and other items.

They worked in small groups to plan, design and test and then were timed to see which group could extract the pebble the fastest. Two U of M STEM ambassadors were present during the project.

A few other project examples: 1st grade built parachutes and zip lines for Thumbelina (in a playful tie-in to their Fairy Tales Core Knowledge Language Arts unit) and 2nd graders, who were studying about Ancient Greece in Social Studies, learned about the post and lintel building system. Meanwhile, in Art, the 2nd graders decorated columns for lintels using one of three Greek designs: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian.

It’s all part of the CMDS STEAM Curriculum, which integrates science, technology, engineering, art and math throughout classes and grades, and CKLA, the school’s Language Arts curriculum. Together classroom and Encore teachers work to integrate lessons and build cross-curricular projects.

E-Lab, Discovery aim to create problem solvers

E-Lab aims to help students learn to be better problems solvers, a life skill, Mrs. Cheairs says, that every child needs. It also seeks to teach them the value of perseverance and that failure is just another try. Younger CMDS students are part of the development, too: E-Lab dovetails with the Early Childhood Discovery Lab, where 2K-SK students are being exposed to introductory engineering concepts as early as 2 years old.

The new E-Lab has already taken what the students are capable of to a higher level, Dr. Williams says, and the future is exciting.

“There are no restrictions or boundaries on where the kids can go with it,” he says. “We’ve set the E-Lab up for success and the kids are having a blast.”


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