Portland students' expedition explores wind, robotics

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PORTLAND — As part of the school’s expeditionary learning model, 80 King Middle School students recently completed a robotics program aimed at using sustainable energy to improve the quality of people’s lives.

The hands-on engineering project called ReVolt was part of a greater expedition at the school aimed at examining wind power with a focus on two guiding questions: How can you transform energy to improve people’s daily lives? And what is the process for developing potential design solutions?

Gus Goodwin, an eighth-grade technology teacher at King, said this expedition began last October and ended last week. He said students worked on a portion of the project in each of their classes.

In English, for example, all 80 students read “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” which tells the story of William Kamkwamba, a Malawian inventor who built a windmill to power his home from materials he found in the local junk yard. Kamkwamba went on to build devices to harvest clean drinking water and two other windmills in his village.

The focus on wind continued through science and math, where students learned how wind works and ways to graph their final data. In their social studies classes, students looked at optimal sites in Maine to place wind farms and then drafted proposals to city or town councils explaining why their project would be a good fit for that location.

Goodwin said as a precursor to developing their proposed wind turbines, the students worked with Lego Robotics kits supplied through a grant from Tufts University in Medford, Mass. They learned how to program their robots and participated in different challenges with students around the country.

“We tied it in with the expedition where the kids worked in teams and built this big game board-type thing, which was 8 feet by 4 feet and had 100 Ping Pong balls in the center,” Goodwin said. “Because the expedition was on energy we wanted (the students) to think about resources (represented by the balls) and they competed against other robots to gather resources and bring them back to their goals.”

Goodwin said expeditions like this are not unusual at King and that he and eighth-grade teacher Peter Hill have participated in several similar expeditions throughout the years. While they have never done this exact project, the expeditions have evolved over the years as teacher and student understanding improves.

“This may be our fifth or sixth time doing the wind energy piece, but we are constantly changing it a little bit,” he said. “The first year we did the wind, none of the students could get their turbines to work. (The expedition) grows and as teachers we learn more and make more connections.”

One of these connections involved traveling to the University of Maine in Orono with students to visit the wind lab and speak with the engineers about wind energy.

“There is a real connection with that field experience,” Goodwin said.

These connections are what expeditionary learning, or deeper learning, at King Middle School is all about.

The school has placed its focus on expeditionary learning for about 20 years, said Goodwin, and it allows students to develop a deeper understanding of what they are being taught rather than just scratching the surface.

“It’s much more than taking a test and being able to score well on a standardized test,” he said. “It’s really diving into it and discovering more things along the way.”

“Something like wind energy I suppose you could approach it and give students pieces to read and find some interesting information and that would still be meaningful, but by having them actually take the science and math and all of the subjects and actually build something of their own creation, they can see the turbines spinning, the reading on the meter, and then make improvements. When you allow them time like we do where they can just dig into a subject it carries with them a lot longer and it really has a deeper meaning.”

At the end of their almost five-month expedition, students presented their ideas for projects that would improve common problems such as drinking water pollution. The students were responsible for speaking to parents, students, teachers and community members about what their project was, how it works and why it is important to the community at large.

Goodwin said having to explain the project and how they went about designing it and changes that had to be made also aids in student understanding and makes what they are being taught stick.

“It’s the hands-on, teamwork, kind of messy stuff that really provides that deeper learning experience,” he said.

Amber Cronin can be reached at acronin@theforecaster.net or 781-3661 ext. 125. Follow her on Twitter @croninamber.

Sidebar Elements

King Middle School students work with Lego Robotics kits supplied by a grant from Tuft’s University as a precursor to a larger project aimed at gaining a better understanding about how wind power works.