Penn State students help children learn engineering through origami

bmilazzo@centredaily.comAugust 1, 2013 

— Eight-year-old Brooke Bagwell’s origami sailboat took wind the first time it set sail Wednesday morning at Discovery Space of Central Pennsylvania.

But the second time, the mast wasn’t sturdy enough, and it tipped, filling the sailboat with water on a man-made race course.

Though a trial-and-error process to consistently get their sailboats to float, about eight summer campers, ages 6 to 9, worked with Penn State students to combine arts and engineering.

Penn State engineering students introduced children at Discovery Space to a program called “Design it, Build it, Use it: Discover Origami and Engineering” — a one-day event designed to show children how artists and engineers can come together to solve problems and create specific designs.

Rebecca Strzelec, professor of visual arts at Penn State-Altoona, said Penn State was given a four-year, $2 million grant through the National Science Foundation for research.

“Part of our research is to also do outreach and education within the community,” Strzelec said. “We have enough funding where we can go to other organizations and teach these same kind of classes.”

Wednesday was the first-ever outreach with the group through this grant, led by Strzelec and four Penn State students who helped develop the project: Carlye Lauff, a mechanical engineer who will pursue graduate and doctoral studies; Carrie Tedesco, an engineer science major; Meghan Riegel, a mechanical engineering student; and Becca Betty, a biology and English major who was asked to join the team to help in the visual aspect of the project.

And on Wednesday, the project got thumbs-up from the kids.

“I’m having a lot of fun,” said Brooke, a Benner Elementary student. “I think my favorite part is putting the sail on.”

Brooke, along with a handful other children, learned about creativity, teamwork and problem-solving as they experimented with different materials to make the origami sailboat.

“It’s great. These kids at Discovery Space already have an interest in the sciences, so we have that working for us,” Strzelec said. “At an age where they absorb everything, this is teaching them to combine two different and unique learning tools to create one thing and use both sides of their brain.”

Strzelec said throughout the year the team will teach similar classes to other organizations based around origami and engineering, but tailor the program to fit the needs of the program as it develops and progresses in the next four years.

“When we’re given grants for research, it’s not just catering to our needs, but educating others on what we do,” Strzelec said. “If we can be proactive in the outreach, then we’re successfully doing what we need to.”

Britney Milazzo can be reached at 231-3638. Follow her on Twitter @M11azzo.

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