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Girls Explore Engineering with Marble Run Challenge

Getting girls inspired about engineering can be as simple as giving them the tools and a fun hands-on challenge to solve. Thanks to community support from Northrop Grumman, a group of Maryland middle school girls tested their marble run mettle —and had a great time doing it!

Whether using foam tubing or an assortment of found and recycled materials (as in the photo above), creating a marble run or marble roller coaster is great hands-on engineering for students of all ages! Throw in some duct tape to spice things up, and you've got a hard-to-resist creative engineering activity for today's DIY duct tape crowd. Bonus: you don't need a lot of supplies or a lot of space. Even a hallway will work!
Building a marble run is a fun hands-on science activity and a great way to get students of all ages involved in an exciting engineering challenge—one that has clear and immediate results. Will the marble make it from top to bottom? How long of a run can you build? What design modifications might increase the marble's speed?

As students explore construction challenges, design issues, principles of physics, and engineering problems while creating a marble run, they also intuitively put the engineering design process in action. They think creatively. They innovate. They prototype, test, and then make changes. And they have fun.

Fostering the Engineering Spirit

Thanks to volunteers from Northrop Grumman, students from Maryvale Preparatory Middle School were recently treated to a hands-on engineering activity and challenge. The girls were given thirty minutes to build a roller coaster out of two pieces of foam tubing, a roll of masking tape, and five plastic cups. The wall and bleachers in the gym where they were conducting the activity were also fair game. Points were to be awarded for incorporating different kinds of loops and spirals in the design as well as for having the marble land in a cup at the end of its run.

With the clock ticking, the challenge was on, and the girls quickly started taping and looping their tubing, experimenting with different elevations, and repeatedly dropping marbles through the tubing to test their in-progress designs. This engineering activity is one that lets students explore principles of physics and design through trial and error. If the marble flies out of the tubing rather than continuing down the track, something needs to be altered. Which variable is causing the problem? The exploration also encourages them to think creatively. With limited materials on hand, what options are available for stabilizing the marble run? What do you attach it to?

Supporting Science in the Community

For Laura Lam, senior quality engineer at Northrop Grumman, and Christina Lloyd, quality engineer at Northrop Grumman, time spent at the Brooklandville middle school was time spent giving back to the community in support of science, technology, engineering, and math literacy (STEM)—and in support of females in engineering. Lam and Lloyd visited Maryvale Preparatory as part of Northrop Grumman's DiscoverE program, a program that supports STEM education in local schools. Through DiscoverE, Northrop Grumman engineers visit community schools and lead hands-on classroom activities designed to inspire and excite students about engineering and technical career paths.

This was Lam's sixth year bringing a hands-on engineering activity to students at Maryvale Preparatory. Each year, Lam says she chooses a project that "highlights for the girls that they can be real problem solvers." Building confidence and giving students a good look at what engineering "means" is important, says Lam, who thinks students, both boys and girls, are sometimes scared of going into engineering. More exposure to the kinds of creative and fun problem solving at the heart of engineering helps students better understand what engineering is really all about. "Doing these projects each year is fun for them and also helps them see that they can solve real-life issues," Lam adds.

In years past, Lam has led students in building newspaper towers, developing boats from plastic wrap and straws, designing an environmentally friendly soda can holder, and constructing towers from dry spaghetti and gum drops. Each activity poses a challenge, uses common materials, invites collaboration, and lets students dive in as they race to find the best, fastest, most stable, or most innovative solution. Clear objectives for "winning" are given at the start, like this year's point system by which teams earned points for integrating specific design elements or successfully completing a specific task.

"Every year I am amazed at the creativity of these young girls," says Lam. "They are in 6th through 8th grade, but they come up with some really creative ideas, and they work really well together."

For Lam, visiting the school and helping excite and inspire students is one way she is actively helping to encourage young women to explore STEM fields. Like other female engineers, Lam recognizes the importance of girls having and meeting real-world role models. "When I was trying to decide what I wanted to major in when I was going to college, my Dad (who was also an engineer) took me to his place of employment and let me spend the day with some other female engineers," says Lam. "Seeing other women in the field helped me to solidify my decision to go into engineering... and I'm so glad I did."

Lam participates in DiscoverE to give young women in her community the same kind of support and encouragement. "I certainly hope that over the years that I have been doing this at least a couple girls have been inspired to go into the engineering field as a result."

Bring it to Your Community or Home

If you are inspired by the engineering activity Lam and Lloyd did with students at Maryvale Preparatory, consider doing a similar science or engineering activity with a group or class of students in your own area or at home! You might be surprised to find that local teachers would welcome the opportunity to have you come in and help with a hands-on science or engineering activity in class.

The following Project Ideas can easily be adapted for use in a short-term, hands-on engineering activity:

Remember, when you take a science project into the classroom, focus on what can be accomplished in a fixed amount of time—and on what the students can learn by putting the project in action.

For more insight and parent perspective on hands-on engineering activities, see "Roller Coaster Science: Marbles, Tubes, and Loops" and "Building Bridges."

Science Buddies Project Ideas and resources in robotics engineering and astronomy are supported by Northrop Grumman.

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