Mastering the Art of Engineering (With Cardboard and String)

Written by: Tracey Regan,
Elementary school teacher Graceann Griffin (left) partnered with Kathleen Rutherford (middle), a retired biomedical engineer, and Lori Maliff (right), an eighth grade science teacher, to construct a candy-grasping robotic arm.

In a first on campus, NJIT’s Center for Pre-College Programs joined forces this month with Newark College of Engineering (NCE) to sponsor a workshop for New Jersey school teachers eager to introduce their students to hands-on engineering projects.

Working in teams of three, the 93 teachers in attendance that day used simple, everyday materials such as cardboard, binder clips and string to construct a robotic arm and a sailboat according to specific design criteria. 

Elementary school teacher Graceann Griffin partnered with Lori Maliff, an eighth grade science teacher, and Kathleen Rutherford, a retired biomedical engineer, to construct a candy-grasping robot (below) that drew the admiration of the room. Propelled by a pulley made of packaging string, the cardboard robot slid toward a cup of candy while another pulley guided pincers to grasp, lift and pivot it to the left and right.

Griffin, who teaches grades three through six at the Harding Elementary School in Kenilworth, said she planned to conduct the exercise with her fourth grade class later this fall. “As a gifted-and-talented program teacher, I’m always looking for new ideas to bring into the classroom, including engineering. I will definitely do this project. I plan to bring in the materials and put them out.”

Maliff, a teacher at Wall Intermediate School who has more than two decades of experience in the classroom, said she, too, is looking for ways to inject creativity into her program, including opportunities for students “to explore and do for themselves.”

“One of the great things about this project is that it can be done with readily available materials – and completed within an hour,” she added.

A robotic arm, built with cardboard, string and office clips

Rutherford, who spends much of her free time as a volunteer spreading the word of engineering to students and teachers, recalls the first robotics workshop she attended more than a decade ago.

"After agreeing to volunteer a few weeks prior, I walked into this professional sports arena and saw hundreds of high school kids working on 40 or 50 robots – and I found myself bursting into tears. To this day, I'm not sure why it affected me so deeply. This was a childhood I would have liked to have had. It was just the coolest,” she recalled with a laugh, adding, “Robotics is such a compelling gateway to the world of tech for students.”

The October workshop, held in the New Jersey Innovation Institute’s Agile lab, was the first of three scheduled to take place on the NJIT campus through TRY Engineering, a hands-on STEM learning program sponsored by IEEE, IBM and Teachers TryScience, a website for teachers.

“This is a new collaboration with NCE to promote engineering in our schools,” said Jacqueline Cusack, executive director for the Center for Pre-College Programs. “In this initiative, we’re targeting teachers. The more confident they are with the content, the more effective they will be in the classroom.”

There are two more workshops scheduled for later in the school year. The first will take place on Monday, November 6, and the second on Thursday, February 8, 2018.