By Nance Ebert, Contributing Writer
Shrewsbury – It all started with the thought that young children would benefit from being introduced to engineering in a fun and engaging way early on in their education. This exposure would give them additional tools to problem-solve, use their creativity, and work together as a team.
Irene Alvarez is a mechanical engineer and parent volunteer. She has worked for GE as a mechanical engineer for the past nine years. Born in Venezuela, she got her degree from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). She and her family live in Shrewsbury and one of her children is a student at Spring Street Elementary.
While looking through the afterschool clubs, Alvarez thought it would be wonderful if engineering was offered to these children. She approached Karen Isaacson, director of extended learning, and proposed her idea in which she would teach a class to first- and second-grade students. She put together a syllabus titled “Engineering Workshop for Kids” and, using hands-on activities, she will engage and challenge the students with links and joints, hydraulic lift, windmill, launching snowmen (lever concept), perpetual motion and more.
“When Irene approached me, I knew that she had done workshops for children at WPI and MIT so I jumped at the chance to have her here. With more and more focus on STEM curriculum, this seemed like a great way to bring this to our afterschool program. The parents also seem to want to incorporate this as well,” said Isaacson.
The five-week afterschool club was approved and Emma Madsen, a special education teacher at Spring Street, volunteered to assist Alvarez each week.
“This will be a great learning experience for me and for the students,” Alvarez said. “I think being challenged is wonderful and these kids will learn so much and have great fun at the same time. Our first lesson will be using simple machines and creating kinematic chains using links and joints. Robots, scissors and our arms and legs are examples of kinematic chains.”
The class was limited to 15 participants and is full for this session. This will enable both Alvarez and Madsen to focus their attention to each student and the hands-on activities that they will be engaged in weekly.
“I think being challenged at such a young age will help them to be motivated and want more. Learning can be a lot of fun. I think that when you hear the term ‘engineering’ it can be a bit intimidating. If they are exposed to something like this when they are this young, it can only lead to more opportunities when they are older,” said Madsen.
“I love that Irene is calling this an Engineering Club and not a building club. Perhaps this will demystify what engineering is, which is problem-solving. This is a life skill that everyone can use whether they decide to become and engineer or not,” said Isaacson.
Alvarez is not ashamed to admit that she has always enjoyed math and science. Although engineering is a typically male-dominated field, she encouraged anyone, especially young girls to problem-solve and not be afraid of math and science. She encourages teamwork as she believes that cooperation is key.
“Engineering is just a big word,” Alvarez said. “It simply translates to problem-solving. That is something we can all do.”