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Build it and They Will Come

Mini Innovation Days

Jenilee Stanley-Shanks (front left) supervises students and volunteers as they create a strategy. (Photo credit: David Timberline)

By Patricia Cason

When Jenilee Stanley-Shanks, the director of government and community outreach for VCU’s College of Engineering, shows up at an elementary school, the kids know they’re in for a treat. In their minds, they’re going to be saving a house from catastrophic flood or becoming a real-life scientist who guides a robot through a maze. But what Stanley-Shanks is doing is sowing the seeds that will make kids pursue an engineering career.

The College of Engineering started doing Mini Innovation Days during the 2017-18 academic year. Since then it’s become a part of their Early Engineers program, which includes all of the college’s K-5 outreach activities. Mini-Innovation days try to spark students’ interest in STEAM concepts from a young age, as it’s often difficult to draw students to the field when they’re older. Stanley-Shanks describes this as “widening the pool,” as interest decreases when students become older and realize how many advanced math classes go into an engineering or computer science degree.

“I especially like the Innovation Days because we get to be with students in their own environment,” Stanley-Shanks says. “They are comfortable and relaxed which leads to a much more valuable experience where they are able to focus on the new skills that they are learning.”

On a recent morning, Stanley-Shanks brought a crew of VCU Engineering students and staff with her to try out a new activity on the students of Swansboro Elementary School in South Richmond. The session began with her standing in front of the class, explaining that the students would be building a “dam” with various materials to stop their “houses” from flooding. She first measured the absorbency of the materials the students would choose from to build their dam: cotton balls, pieces of rags and sponges. The hope was that students would take note of which material was the most absorbent, and choose this as their building material.

The results were recorded on the chalkboard by a volunteer, and the students were given the opportunity to send up one representative each to collect their material. This student took the material back to their group, and they got started with the daunting process of designing a flood-resistant dam for their home. The projects were constructed in aluminum pans, with construction paper rectangles representing houses. A line was drawn around the bottom of each house to represent the point it  would be flooded.

The students were given time to construct their design, with a VCU Engineering volunteer at each table helping them. The most popular material was cotton balls, which students packed around the outside of their pans. A daring group chose sponges as their material, which they cut up and placed around the pan.

During the building process, one of the students came up to Stanley-Shanks with the complaint that he hadn’t received exactly fifty cotton balls, they amount she’d told they class they’d receive if they chose that material. Stanley-Shanks good-naturedly gave him the amount he was missing. After all, he was just trying to take advantage of his resources.

After the designs were completed they were tested by pouring a cup of water into the pan. If no water touched the construction paper house, the house was safe from water damage. If the bottom of the house was wet but the water didn’t reach the line, the bottom of their house was a little damp. If the water was past the line, their house was flooded.

Fortunately, no students had a completely flooded house. The groups with cotton balls fared better than the group sponges, but no one had more than a damp basement. The students were excited they’d saved their houses, but that wasn’t even the best part: Stanley-Shanks and the VCU Engineering volunteers had interested the students in STEAM concepts without them even realizing it. “I am constantly amazed at the energy and curiosity that the students we work with bring to the activities,” Stanley-Shanks says. “I like the opportunity to show them what Engineering is and to let them know that STEAM fields need people just like them to help create the technologies and inventions of tomorrow.”