A Get a Grip! student demonstrates her design for a prosthetic arm



Get a Grip!

Middle school program teaches design

Siobhan Donati, an eighth grade science teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Laboratory School in Evanston, waits as her students find their seats and calm down after recess. She will start a new science unit today. Students will be challenged to design a prosthetic arm for an amputee using materials that would be readily available in the developing world. The science unit Donati is implementing — called Get a Grip! — was developed by Northwestern faculty and students and was chosen to be integrated into the King Lab curriculum because it supports instruction in a variety of disciplines — math, science, social studies, and language arts — while engaging students in a hands-on activity.

In order to effectively meet this challenge, students must apply problem-solving and teamwork skills. “This program was exceptional in that it built self-esteem in students who had never taken pride in their work prior to this project,” says Donati. “They became critical thinkers while strengthening their cooperative learning ability. Not only did the students talk about the program outside of the classroom, but they had other students, in other grades, also talking about the program.”

To complete the project students must create conceptual models, perform online research, draw diagrams, test ideas, communicate results, and weigh conflicting priorities as they work collaboratively to design and build their final prosthetic arm prototype. James Finley, a McCormick graduate student in biomedical engineering and Get a Grip! volunteer, says, “It was amazing to see how innovative the students were, considering the small amount of supplies that we provided. The students have virtually no limitations on themselves at this age; some of the student designs were probably better than what we would come up with as engineers.” Finley has a long-standing interest in programs that involve mentoring or teaching younger students, and he welcomed the opportunity to introduce engineering to students at King Lab and other schools throughout Chicago.

The Get a Grip! program began in September 2001 and is funded through the National Science Foundation. It was developed by Suzanne Olds, assistant chair of biomedical engineering, and David Kanter, research assistant professor of education and social policy, at Northwestern in consultation with middle school science teachers, student volunteers from Northwestern, and engineers at the Center for International Rehabilitation, a Chicago-based international humanitarian network.

“This program equips young people to think as global citizens,” says Olds. “It informs students about the worldwide land mine situation, it increases their cultural awareness, and it generates respect for their disabled peers. It challenges young people to consider the needs of others and allows them to understand the difficulties some face — all while assuming the role of an engineer.” Olds observed that a successful implementation of the program requires a good teacher and a supportive administration — and that both were present at the King Laboratory School.

Donati says the program definitely made her students excited about science. “They had a lot of fun during Get a Grip!” she says. “The students learned to work cooperatively with their peers to accomplish a goal. They learned cost effectiveness and how the design of a product affects its usefulness. This program opened their eyes to more career options.”

The Northwestern faculty and students who developed Get a Grip! clearly hope that engineering is one career these students will consider.

—Kelly Janura

Northwestern University