December 20, 2013

Students in the Design Nature class at Olin College took over the main floor of the Academic Center Wednesday to showcase their projects to some special visitors.

The featured guests included seventy fourth graders from Hillside Elementary School in Needham, Mass.

In the Design Nature class, students study nature and turn their bio-inspired ideas into functional toy prototypes. The focus is on the general principles and methods that shape the practice of engineering design. This year, there were eighteen teams, each one focused on an animal performing some sort of task. There was a mechanized camel that spit water at balloons, a boxing kangaroo, a giant sloth, flying sugar gliders, and a crab trying to build a nest to protect her babies, among other creations.

The youngsters, 10 and 11-year-olds, were on hand to act as toy testers. They clutched clipboards as they crowded around each activity prepared to grade the toys in several different categories. Lines formed as each fourth grader took a turn pulling levers, manipulating catapults, spraying water, and, in general, having a lot fun.

Over at Team Pelican, students stood on a taped line and tried to get as many projectiles into the pelican's mouth as possible. Hillside student, Leah, 10, called the game really "cool." On a table labeled Spring Cleaning Australia, teams of kids took turns pulling a catapult designed to get a furry critter to fly over objects and land on the other side.

At another location the members of Team Llama lined up behind their mechanical toy – a big, brown llama. The object of the game was to sit on the llama and manipulate its head to trigger a stream of water from its mouth. The stream was used to hit and knock down a series of targets.

Less than twenty-four hours earlier, however, things had looked pretty dicey for Team Llama. The brown, furry fabric used to cover the animal arrived days late. To further complicate matters, the sewing machine broke down, necessitating a quick lesson in hand sewing and some extra effort right before the big day.

But as students lined up to take turns sitting on the llama, all the frantic effort was forgotten. The game progressed with no big mechanical issues and the team members pronounced themselves pleased with the results. "Everything went really well. We always had a line and kids wanting to play the game," said Mafalda Borges '17. "There were some minor repairs for a leak where it shot out water but, other than that, we were able to keep the llama working the entire time. We even had kids come back because they enjoyed playing the game so much. So it went well really well overall."