Villanova University Students Engineer Learning and Fun in Local Classrooms

Villanova PhD student Sergio Yañez supervises the gingerbread house build.
Villanova PhD student Sergio Yañez supervises the gingerbread house build.

For the past five years, Villanova Community Action by New Engineers (NovaCANE), a volunteer group of Villanova University College of Engineering students and faculty, has brought engineering into the classrooms of local schools. The goal is to improve middle school students’ interest and abilities in the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math. On Dec. 5, NovaCANE’s lesson at St. Martin of Tours Elementary School in Philadelphia came with a holiday twist. Villanova Engineering students challenged an enthusiastic group of sixth graders to construct gingerbread houses that could withstand an earthquake simulation.

As part of their yearlong focus on structural engineering, students in this voluntary after school program were given a 10-20 minute informative lecture about earthquakes and their impact on structures. The lesson was followed by a 45 – 60 minute hands-on activity. Four groups of 4–6 students were given housing supplies—graham crackers, licorice, icing and candy—to construct a two-story gingerbread house. While building their houses, students not only had to ensure that their structure could stand freely, but they also needed take into consideration how plate tectonics impact structures during earthquakes. Following construction, each group’s gingerbread house was put to the test on a “shake table” to see whether it could survive an earthquake. When each design ultimately collapsed, the students greatly enjoyed eating their engineering creations. 

Teamwork is a big part of the learning experience.
Teamwork is a big part of the learning experience.

When asked why they joined the NovaCANE club, nearly every student referenced the fun they have while learning:

“I like learning new things by doing fun activities.”

“I like having fun with my friends and learning at the same time.”

“It’s fun to make things and destroy them!”

“I’m doing things I’ve never done before.”

The NovaCANE club is active at five different middle schools in the Philadelphia region, which they visit at least once a month beginning early in the fall. In addition to lectures and hands-on activities, Villanova students and faculty provide teacher education during their visits. “I have collected a number of good ideas for future lessons and follow-up projects thanks to the program,” says Joe Smith, a St. Martin of Tours teacher.  He adds, “The kids love interacting with the Villanova students.” Participating class members and teachers are also invited to spend a day on campus at Villanova’s College of Engineering in the spring. During their campus visit the group will tour the engineering facilities and engage in a series of hands-on experiences mentored by Villanova undergraduate and graduate students, as well as faculty. 

Time to transfer a house to the shake table for testing.
Time to transfer a house to the shake table for testing.

The College of Engineering serves as a regional leader in STEM outreach programs and is committed to inspiring the next generation of engineers. The College’s STEM outreach takes on many forms, from facilitation of national programs on the Villanova campus to local programs that originate from the creativity of Villanova students and faculty. To learn more, visit the College’s website.