Benjamin Sohn interacts with a team of third graders as they pour hot chocoate mix into their machine.

MechSE's Benjamin Sohn Gives Local Kids a Taste of Engineering

December 2, 2014

Benjamin Sohn, an Illinois Ph.D. student in Mechanical Science and Engineering (MechSE), devoted his lunch hour several Tuesdays this fall to sharing his love of engineering with local youngsters at Champaign Unit 4’s Dr. Howard School. Working with students in Ellen Elrick’s 3rd grade class, Sohn taught the students some engineering principles while showing them how fun engineering can be.

During each of the four sessions, after a brief period of instruction, the kids would tackle a hands-on activity designed to teach them an engineering principle. For example, in the first session, "Blast Off," students made paper rockets. For the "Launcher" activity, the students made popsicle catapults. During the "Make a Litter" activity, they made moving mechanisms; and in the final lesson, "Hot Chocolate Machine," students designed and made one. The idea was for students to build a structure that would channel the hot water poured in the top cup down through a couple of cups containing hot chocolate mix, and by the time the water reached the cups on the bottom—voilà—they would have made hot chocolate automatically! And once the students completed the project, not only did they receive the personal satisfaction of having their design succeed, they all got an even sweeter reward: tasting the fruits of their labor.

This team of third graders is learning a valuable lesson. After watching their hot chocolate machine collapse during testing, they learn that part of engineering is going back to the drawing board to rethink their design.

Encouraged to take on the project by his advisor, MechSE Professor Gaurav Bahl, Sohn hopes that exposing the youngsters to engineering might set some of them them on paths to careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) in general, or possibly evenin his own field. The MechSE Ph.D. student's research is related to Micro Electro Mechanical Systems (MEMS), devices which use mechanical resonance.

"I want to inspire them to be involved in STEM fields for the development of the field," admits Sohn.

The Dr. Howard outreach wasn't Sohn's first time working with K–12 students. This past fall, he also helped Bahl with an outreach working with high school seniors in a Uni High engineering class.

During a post-mortem following the last session at Dr. Howard, the third grade students participated in a time of sharing about the experience. What did they say they learned? "Don’t give up!” for one.

According to Sohn, students learned some key engineering principles: "I believe that these activities introduced basic concepts of engineering to the students. It is hard to learn about engineering in elementary school. However, with the simple activities, they experienced all the important components of engineering: design, communication, manufacture.

Does third grade teacher Ellen Elrick agree that her charges learned some engineering?

“I think they did…” corroborated Elrick. “When we started learning, they thought engineers just built things. And they realized that they go through a whole design process, and that they try new designs out, and when they fail, they go back and try again.”

Does she think any of her students are fledgling engineers? Definitely. “I think they’re all engineers, honestly,” acknowledges Elrick. “They just don’t know it.”

Story and photos by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative.
More: K-6 Outreach, MechSE, Student Spotlight, 2014

Benjamin Sohn (top left) and third grade teacher Ellen Elrick (top right) observe as a team of students prepares to test their hot chocolate machine design. Their test was unsuccessful (see image above), and the team had to go back to square one.