May 20, 2009

Legos and Learning

Tufts program sends college students to teach hands-on engineering skills to elementary school kids—with a big dash of fun

By Marjorie Howard

Video by Joanie Tobin

The miniature amusement park ride built out of Lego bricks and a motor works almost too well: a tiny swing hanging by a cord from a tower whirls around so fast that if there were real riders on board, they’d emerge wobbly and dizzy—if they didn’t go flying off first, that is.

Click on the play button to watch a video of STOMP in action in a local elementary classroom. Photo by Joanie Tobin.

The two fifth-grade girls who designed and built the ride giggle as the swing flies around and around. They flip off the switch and immediately know what to do: put another gear on top of the tower to slow down the swing. It works.

In local classrooms and in schools around the country, elementary school students like these—and their teachers—are learning science, math and engineering principles through the Student Teacher Outreach Mentorship Program, known as STOMP. The program began at Tufts in 2001, the brainchild of Chris Rogers, a professor in the department of mechanical engineering, and Merredith Portsmore, G09, and now has sent more than 150 university students, known as fellows, into 60 classrooms in Somerville, Arlington, Medford, Cambridge and Boston.

If a class is studying ancient Egypt, for instance, they might learn how to construct a pyramid with Lego bricks. If simple machines are on the curriculum, kids build levers and pulleys and see exactly how they work. Among other topics covered: static electricity and making ice cream without an ice cream maker. STOMP’s goal is not to just excite children about learning, but to mentor their teachers about how to incorporate engineering principles into their lessons.

Adam Carberry, G05, G10, who is working toward his doctorate in engineering education, manages STOMP and describes the lively, bustling classroom work as “active chaos.” Each week the Tufts students prepare a lesson plan in conjunction with classroom teachers and visit the classroom to explain concepts and ideas in a lively give-and-take with their young students.

The Game Plan

At a recent session at the Brackett Elementary School in Arlington, fifth graders are assigned the job of designing and building amusement park rides. “What does this challenge have to do with engineering?” Jordyn Wolfand, E11, an environmental engineering major, asks the class.

The kids call out the answers in rapid order:
“The rides must be safe.”
“They must be really fun but made well.”
“They should look good.”
“We need to know the number of people who can fit in a ride.”
“We need to know what materials the rides should be made of.”
“They shouldn’t be expensive.”
“It shouldn’t hit a pole—we have to think about where to put it.”

The students form groups and quickly choose names for their production companies: Spitfire, Rock and Roll Amusements, Three Mechanics. Then they get down to work.

“Show us your game plan,” says Thomas Williamson, E10. He reminds them that one of the requirements is that the ride must have a motor. After drawing up plans, each team is given a green box filled with Lego bricks. The children sift through the pieces and begin to build, while the Tufts students move from team to team, asking questions and challenging the kids to solve problems on their own. The classroom bubbles with talk and laughter, and soon amusement park equipment begins to emerge in the form of conveyor belts, cranes and pendulums.

Two boys making a free-fall ride talk about cables and safety. Another group, working on a dragon ship, discusses how they can make the ride scarier. “We’ll have to have spikes,” says one.

Teacher Nicole Feroleto says one of the aspects of the program she treasures is the level of interest from the girls. “The boys are good, but I’m thrilled about the girls’ ability to use their innate talent to make this work. The girls love it,” she says. “Their projects are always on par with the boys, if not better. They’ll often think things out a little bit and not just jump in.”

This hands-on approach has inspired nearly 20 other colleges and universities to start their own programs based on STOMP; they all participate in an online network. Others are inspired, too: a high school in rural New Hampshire sends its students into area elementary schools with engineering projects, and a program called I-STOMP has enlisted employees from such firms as Raytheon and National Instruments to bring engineering to classrooms. Funded by a gift from the LLL Foundation, STOMP operates under the umbrella of the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO) at Tufts.

The STOMP fellows not only come from the School of Engineering, but from a range of departments in the School of Arts and Sciences, including geology, psychology, education and child development. Students are trained in using the Lego bricks and a programming language that operates a special, computerized Lego brick used in many of the projects. Online activity, photo and video databases at allow new participating students to learn from what many past STOMP fellows have done in the classroom. For some of the fellows, the experience has given them a new perspective.

Kara Miranda, A10, is majoring in education and English. She hopes to teach fifth grade, where she’ll be asked to teach a range of subjects. “I’ve learned a lot more about teaching math and science because of STOMP,” she says. “It’s been really fun.”

Elsa Head, A09, an engineering science and environmental studies major, says because of her STOMP experience, she’ll be back in school in the fall, getting a master’s in engineering education, and working at CEEO at Tufts. The work itself is fulfilling, but there are the intangibles, too: It’s the one time she walks into a classroom when she gets a round of applause just for showing up.

Marjorie Howard can be reached at

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