Diana Barnhart is back coordinating Engineering Day, the program she developed at Los Osos Middle School about five years ago. In 2008, she retired to travel the world, but after nine months, she missed teaching.
Barnhart was named 2006 California Teacher of the Year for her innovative, interactive approach to teaching science. Students motivated by her enthusiasm discover more than anticipated. Cal Poly snagged her to teach future teachers science concepts.
When Barnhart learned engineers commanded a higher wage right out of college, she took action. “Our country needs more engineers, but traditional teachers don’t understand engineering, and engineers are often nonverbal and can’t explain how exciting their careers can be.”
Barnhart admits it took her a while to understand the concept. “Science explains how something works,” she said. “Engineering makes it work.”
True to the Barnhart style of teaching, she developed a “show me” instead of “tell me” approach for Engineering Day. “In middle school you can still hook a student,” she said.
She enlisted Cal Poly engineering students to lead interactive exercises. Materials used had to be readily available and inexpensive so all students could participate. The students focus on developing projects in civil, construction, electrical and mechanical engineering. Each exercise is accompanied by an animated Cal Poly engineering student describing the type of engineering he or she is studying, the level of academic achievement expected for entry into Cal Poly and the career benefits upon graduation.
“This year, we had incredible support from the Cal Poly Engineering Department — students and teachers from all departments, including Ag Engineering and Engineers without Borders. They install water systems worldwide,” Barnhart said. “The civil engineers brought their concrete canoe that won nationals.”
Students produced roller coasters made from foam tubes with three loops and a jump. A marble had to sustain a ride that took teamwork to envision and hold together. With computers, they built bridges on a budget that maintained a pre-determined load. Reconfigured battery cables produced electricity. An earthquake shaker table tested tall towers designed from straws, paper plates and card stock. Action toys were created from soda cans, rubber bands and pipe cleaners. Students earned gold stickers and high-fives for successful teamwork.
When asked how to expand Engineering Day to other schools, Barnhard said, “Be receptive. The teachers at Los Osos Middle School are willing to get out of their comfort zone allow the students to be a little noisy. The district encourages Engineering Day. It’s great to work with teachers willing to be creative — that allow the students creative learning that’s fun.”
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