Engineering Lessons Adapted for Special Education

Modifying engineering lessons from NASA makes them accessible to a wider variety of learners.

By Erin Bailey

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It's true—engineering can be fun for learners of all ages, abilities, and grade levels. However, like many other disciplines, engineering is often best learned through experience. This article offers three hands-on engineering lessons that allow pupils of all ages and ability ranges to experience science concepts, such as potential and kinetic energy, gravity, friction, and Newton’s Laws of Motion. All of the original lessons came from NASA’s summer education opportunities, but the procedures have been adapted to fit the needs of special education students in grades 7-10. Refer to the original lesson plans for lists of materials needed.

A Safer Space Capsule

Main Concepts: Transfer of energy, motion and force, scientific design, and the properties of objects and materials.

The Lesson: Combine elements from two NASA activities: the Touchdown Challenge and the Mars Pathfinder Egg Drop Challenge. Learners design and build a shock-absorbing system that will protect an astronaut when he lands using foam, marshmallows, bubble wrap, cotton balls, and cardboard. Your scientists evaluate and improve their design based on testing results. Depending on the size and ability of the class, you may either choose to build a group structure or break into small groups.

To grab everyone’s attention, place a raw egg into a plastic cup and tell the class that this is the space capsule containing astronauts. Ask them to think about why it is important for the space capsule to land as gently as possible. Then drop the cup (into a bucket if you don't want a mess). Ask your class to predict what has happened to the egg. After discussing why the egg broke, present the challenge: design a structure that will protect the astronauts and the space capsule upon landing.

Procedure:

  1. Pupils will explore different materials that absorb shock well. Materials to provide include: mini marshmallows, cotton balls, bubble wrap, and foam packing peanuts. Drop additional eggs into a container padded with each of these materials and allow your young engineers to observe the results. They should select one to use. 
  1. Drop a second plastic cup, empty this time, and have the class observe what happens to it as it falls. Does it tip over? How can tipping be prevented? Give the example of a bicycle versus a car; a pencil versus a fat marker. Why does one tip over and the other does not? Lead students to see that a wider base prevents tipping. Show them how to attach a cardboard platform to the cup with tape. Touchdown Challenge includes additional notes on the size of the platform.
  1. Ask pupils where the shock absorbing material should go to protect the space capsule. If they want to place it inside the cup, remind them that there will be equipment inside the capsule so the shock absorbers must be outside the capsule. It's also important to protect the capsule from damage so that the astronauts can return to Earth when the mission is complete. Demonstrate how to place the shock absorbers on the bottom of the cardboard base platform. Sandwich the shock absorbers between a second piece of cardboard the same size as the first.
  1. Have kids practice dropping their shock-absorbing structures and eggs while making observations about tipping and damage to the egg. Encourage all groups to make changes to their designs and retest.

One of the extension ideas suggested videotaping the drops and then breaking the videos into half-second frames so that everyone can clearly see the details of the fall.

Balloon Rocketry

Main Concepts: Potential and kinetic energy, measurement, and the scientific process.

The Lesson: Use elements from NASA’s Heavy Lifting Air Engines activity. Students observe how unequal pressure creates power and they construct balloon-powered rockets to launch the greatest payload possible to the classroom ceiling.

To focus the class’s attention, watch a video of a rocket launch so that they can witness how a rocket moves in the opposite direction of the force propelling it. Discuss how pressure builds up inside the rocket and is then released to power the rocket upward.  

Procedure:

  1. Blow up a balloon and tie it shut. Ask pupils to observe if the balloon will move on its own. Discuss how the rocket engine stores potential energy like the balloon. When that energy is released, it turns to kinetic energy and the rocket will move.
  1. Blow up a second balloon and pinch it shut. Ask your scientists what will happen if you let the balloon go. After a few responses, release it. Lead a discussion about unequal pressure: the air pressure inside the balloon is greater than the pressure in the room. Other familiar examples of this concept might be pushing a basketball down in a swimming pool and then watching it lurch to the surface, or shaking up a soda can just before opening it. When pressure builds, it has the power to move objects.
  1. Distribute straws and balloons. Tell participants that the straw is the rocket and the balloon is the engine. Demonstrate how to attach the straw to the balloon with tape. Some individuals may need a balloon pump to get their balloon inflated. Bring the inflated balloons to the launch pad—a string tied between two desks. Allow participants to launch their rockets, measuring how far they go and recording the results. What accounts for differences between distances? After a couple of launches, the balloons will stretch out and need to be replaced. Students can investigate the effect that different balloon sizes and shapes have on distance. After everyone has had a couple of chances to observe how far the balloons move horizontally, switch to a vertical launch pad by attaching the string to the ceiling. You can also attach paperclips to the straw to investigate how weight changes the amount of energy needed to move the rocket.

A Better Moon Rover

Main Concepts: Friction, Newton’s 2nd law, potential and kinetic energy, measurement, and scientific design. 

The Lesson: Based on the NASA Roving on the Moon activity. Children build a rover out of cardboard. They use rubber bands to spin the wheels and improve the designed system based on testing results. Depending on the size and ability of the class, you may build a group structure or break into small groups.

Before presenting the lesson, visit the website for a list of materials the class will need and for instructions on building a prototype. Build the model as instructed and precut the parts for each group to build a rover. To save time, you might choose to preassemble a portion of the rovers depending on the ability levels of your participants. Cut out tires in a variety of shapes to replace the square ones. Some shapes you will ant to try to include are octagons, circles, triangles, and ovals.

To start off the lesson, display this image of the moon rover. Ask young scientists to identify features that compare to cars used on Earth. Some answers might include chassis, wheels, fenders, motor, seats, seat belts, antenna, battery, camera, and steering controls. Explain that the moon rover required special tires that would work without an atmosphere, could withstand extreme temperatures, would not get stuck in a variety of terrains, and would not clog with moon dust. Show the class your moon rover prototype and ask them to identify each part’s function. Point out that square wheels will allow the rover to dig into soft surfaces such as sand. Demonstrate how turning the rear wheels winds the rubber band to build potential energy.

Procedure:

  1. Help individuals or groups assemble their rovers. Children should have the opportunity to carefully wind and release their rovers several times to gain understanding of how the potential energy is converted to kinetic energy to turn the wheels.
  1. Pupils should count the number of times they wind the rubber band and then measure how far the rover moves. Plot the results on a graph. Repeat this on different surfaces such as tile, carpet, and a sheet. Draw everyone together to compare the results.
  1. Allow groups to exchange their square wheels for a different shape. Repeat the experiment by winding and releasing the rovers on various surfaces. Discuss how the different shaped wheels affected the performance.

Additional Modified Lessons:

Although simple, these lessons will reinforce scientific principles and give your learners real-world practice with science and engineering. For more special education lessons, check out these resources on Lesson Planet.

Circle Multiplication: 7s and 8s

Tricks to master multiplication facts are necessary for all children. This idea employs a tactile activity and repetition to make facts really “stick.”

Playing with Science

I liked this lesson for its ability to engage kids with science in familiar toys like the Hula-Hoop, slinkies, spring-action cars, and spinning tops. Groups observe a toy, identify the science behind it and function of the parts, and make a poster illustrating their discoveries. Easily adapted to fit a wide-range of learners.

Hands-On Outlining

A language arts lesson on outlining that requires movement, which appeals to most children. Participants sort sentence strips about a topic to see how headings and details fit together to make paragraphs. I like this for special education pupils in grades 5-8.