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by Ella Niederhelmann
IPSWICH – Sustainability is the result when the racing wheels meet the pavement in the sixth grade classroom.
Early last fall, sixth-grade science teachers Kristen Senechal and Samantha Colby decided on an engineering project to teach students about sustainability—not just in the classroom, but in all aspects of life.
Each year, the 6th grade science department addresses an essential question related to a topic. This year, he asked how students can increase a sustainability mindset in themselves and others.
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From this question, the project then emerged through the students’ work.
By working with The change is simple – A Beverly-based sustainability company that works with local schools to educate students in crafting a more sustainable future for themselves – sixth grade teachers put their plan into action.
Electric cars are charged using solar panels already on the high school lawn, giving students an opportunity to apply their understanding of electric cars and charging stations to sustainable engineering in a city environment.
The sixth-grade science department started the project again in the fall. Led by teachers Kristen Senechal and Samantha Colby, they observed the effect on each student in a matter of weeks.
“The teamwork to build it and follow the instructions alone, with tools, brought a whole other level of this design process into the classroom, as they had to work together to figure it out,” Colby said.
“Some of them have never picked up a tool before,” Colby continued. “Each class had to build it up a little bit more every day, so other classes would build on what they left off. They were so excited to see it all together.”
“I think the best part is just watching the process of students building the car,” said Middle School Principal Cathy McMahon. “What a thought-provoking creative process.”
The construction process was not without setbacks. The need for problem-solving tactics quickly became the hidden topic of every science class.
Colby mentioned a time when students faced rewiring an entire brake system they had bolted together backwards.
Senchal and her students had a similar problem – the wheel they tied was placed on the wrong side.
Faced with these challenges, their students did not hesitate to return to auto repair.
“Just watching their thought process, I was really excited,” Colby said. “They were so dedicated to figuring out every detail and putting it back together.”
Senechal said the problem-solving aspect of the project has enabled some kids who might not have been interested in STEAM before to explore and tackle new obstacles.
Find a place
Every sixth grader, regardless of their interests, found a place in the project.
While many students chose to devote themselves to building, others photographed the process, interviewed fellow students about what they learned, and took photos.
A video documenting the entire process was created by 6th graders and will be presented by students on Ipswich STEAM night on May 4.
After weeks of hard work and dedication, the students finished the cars. Finally, on Friday, April 5, the helmets of the bikes waiting near the door were put to use as sixth graders began trying out the cars outside.
The project had an impact – not just on the students, but on the teachers who could finally teach together again.
“I teared up a little,” Colby said. “We went back, I took off the masks and built. It felt whole again.” Senechal agreed.
“The project really falls into those successful mental habits that we’ve been throwing on students for years: creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, perseverance.”
She added, “They have needed a lot of perseverance in the past two years. But this was a different kind of perseverance.”
I look ahead
After receiving funding for the project this year through the Ipswich Education Foundation, they plan to apply for more grants to ensure this project continues in the coming years.
Ultimately, Colby and Senchal hope to incorporate an athletic aspect into the project in terms of distance, speed and motion detection.
They envision the sustainability lessons students learn in sixth grade and continue throughout the rest of their students’ time at Ipswich Public Schools and into adulthood. It’s a good place to start the conversation with them,” Colby said.