MSU Extension’s Junk Drawer Robotics Program Introduces STEM Concepts Using Engineering Design Process

Michigan 4-H Youth Development bases all its programs and activities on experiential, inquiry based, hands-on learning. The model being used for this is the Experiential Learning Model: do, reflect and apply which is described in a series of articles by Michigan State University Extension.

The engineering design process (pdf) used in science is closely related to the experiential learning model. It consists of the following steps: identify the need, research the need, brainstorm solutions, select the best possible solution, construct a prototype, test and evaluate the prototype, communicate results and re-design.

The junk drawer robotics program is an example of a hands-on, experiential program that introduces youth to basic STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) concepts using the engineering design process. You don’t have to be a scientist or an engineer yourself in order to use it with youth. Any volunteer could easily help youth learn about robotitcs by facilitating the project.

The junk drawer robotics program uses everyday household and/or office supplies, that one usually has on hand. In the clip mobile activity youth form small teams and are challenged to design, build, test and evaluate a vehicle that will overcome friction, roll freely down a ramp and tavel a long distance (performance). It must be able to hold/carry a box of paper clips (capacity) and contain at least five different types of parts (complexity), but must use the least number of all parts (efficiency). The clip mobile is built with parts such as craft sticks, paper clips and paper brads, drinking straws, coffee stirrers, beeds, clothes pins, binder clips, wood skewers and bottle lids. As engineers always work under certain constraints, you can add a budget to the acivity as well. Set a production cost for the clip-mobile that cannot be exceeded. Each team will get some start up clip mobile money and will have to purchase the parts. To test the clip mobiles prepare simple card board ramps. Add different textured tracks— sand paper, duck tape or something similar to the card board ramp— so youth can test the performance of their clip mobiles on different surfaces. Change the angle of the ramp and have youth see and measure with a protractor at which angle their clip mobile starts rolling down the ramp. Then have youth compare the angle to the ramp track surface. Which angle is higher, which is lower and why?

To help youth process what they have learned, it is important to ask many open ended questions. This is the “reflect” portion of the experiential learning model. Some questions MSU Extension recommends asking are:

  • What design shapes worked well? or What design shapes did not work so well? And Why?’
  • What would have to be changed to haul heavier loads? or What seemed to work well to use for axles?

To lead into the ‘”apply” section of the experiential learning model, ask questions and start a discussion that connects to other life situations. For example, questions like, “How would you get a bicycle to coast farther without peddling?”, “Where on a bicycle would you want to have friction? Or less friction?” and “What are some additional constraints that you think could be placed on this build?’

The clip mobile activity is a fun, learn-by-doing activity that can be easily done with any group of young people in a variety of settings. You can even create a clip mobile challenge between adults and youth. Utilizing the experiential learning model in this activity will give youth the experience of actively being part of the junk drawer robotics challenge. It will help youth process what they have learned and it will help them to see the connections of what they have learned to real life situations. It will help them gain important life skills, such as problem solving, decision making, communicating and team work.


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