Structural Engineering… and Middle School Life

When I teach vocabulary, for any subject, I try to have students use each word in a way that is individually meaningful. In my middle school STREAM class, vocabulary can range from simple discussions about the difference between “are” and “our,” to elements and principles of design terms, to engineering terms.

My lunch-time class is small, but challenging. More than sixty percent of the students receive free and reduced lunch; a number of them have warnings right on their electronic attendance record that they are to have no contact, ever, with a parent or some other relative. They are my “most likely to…” group—to wander the halls, to end up on the 7th or 8th grade Core list of students to discuss, to pick a fight, to show up in class after lunch without having eaten because they didn’t like the offering. Still, I was surprised when I went over the structural engineering terms in advance of our paper table unit.

The engineering vocab is a great way to bring teamwork conversation into the class. I usually love it. “Who’s got a good idea what stress means?” I ask.

“You want your definition, or my definition?” a student asks.

“Yours, of course… as long as it has appropriate words.”

“Stress,” he says, “is when you wake up at four in the morning because your baby sister is crying, and you have to get her to go back to sleep before she wakes up your little brother. Stress is when you know if your little sister wakes up your mother, or your mother’s boyfriend, they’ll be really mad at you. It’s when you know that if you don’t get her to sleep, you won’t sleep, and then your teachers will be really mad at you because you fall asleep in their classes, or because you have to stand and move around to stay awake. Stress is knowing all this and knowing that you can’t let your little sister know your stressed, because if you do, she’ll never fall back asleep.”

Whew. I lean on the white board. I’ve heard about this kid’s situation. “That sounds incredibly stressful. Yeah. Especially for someone your age.” The kid is twelve.

Another student raises his hand. “Stress is when you have too much homework and when you just want to sleep, but your mother’s mad at you because you lost your winter coat and a bunch of other stuff. It’s when you feel like everything is coming down on your shoulders.”

Nearly everyone shares some definition of stress, and it’s all in the same vein. But there are parallels to be made.

I draw two pictures on the board.

IMG_1710

“Based on what you all shared, which of these pictures looks to be the most stressful?” I ask. The answer is unanimous.

I alter the pictures.

IMG_1713

“Which of these figures would you rather have come down on your arm? Which is going to break the skin?” Again, unanimous. I ask why.

And so, the kids themselves come up with the best definition of stress. A definition that fits both engineering, and life.

In another class, as we discussed trusses, cross-bracing, right angles, and support against fatigue, the students spontaneously broke out into a 7th-grade rendition of Bill Wither’s song “Lean on Me.”

These opportunities can best be seized if teachers are not rushing to cover material for a test, if administrators value creativity, and if all constituents of the school recognize the need to teach the whole child.

We only cover definitions for compression and compressive strength. I don’t have it in me to cover tension with this group today. We’ll get to that and the remaining eleven words next class.

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