Connected \\ June 26, 2019

STEM challenge puts students to the test

Over the past four years as a STEM teacher at Stoneham Central Middle School, there has been one project in particular that has captured my heart: the Pull Toy Design Challenge.


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© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert


As part of the Project Lead The Way (PLTW) Automation and Robotics curriculum at our school, 8th grade students compete in a design challenge each year as a summative assessment of our lessons on mechanical systems. Students build and learn about the functions and features of twelve different mechanical systems - from a simple gear train to a cam and follower - and apply that knowledge to create pull toys that exhibit a variety of output motions driven by the input of pulling their toy with a string. The winners of our school’s internal design challenge were invited to showcase their work to industry professionals at the Mass STEM Hub Pull Toy Showcase in partnership with the Peabody Essex Museum this year- an additional acknowledgement and opportunity they had never had before.

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© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert

Aside from connecting class content to their projects mechanically, students design their toy artistically, connecting form to function and making their motions come alive. What surprised me most was the student creativity that derives from this project. Students take the tools and skills learned and turn them into amazing designs. Because the Showcase would be held at PEM, students were challenged to create a vintage pull toy inspired by vintage toys, connecting their work to PEM due to its collection of vintage toys. The end results left me in awe of their abilities.


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© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert


One student group created an Ouija Board pull toy with rotating candles and a mysteriously moving planchette that functioned with the force of magnetism. They took art to the next level by using hot glue to add wax dripping on the candles and create “glass” for the 3D printed planchette.  This group’s project was so impressive to industry judges at the event that they won the Innovation Award! This award was given to the team who demonstrated the most innovative design and mechanical functions for their pull toy design and prototype – and I was so proud of my students for being recognized for their hard work.

Another group from my class recreated a popular vintage seal toy and meticulously mapped out gear placement to have the tail flap as a ball rotated on its nose. A student favorite design was a jukebox that had 3D printed dancers twirl on the floor and music notes reciprocated in the backdrop.

Throughout the design process, students develop transferrable skills needed to succeed in the STEM field and beyond. They are critically thinking about how to solve challenges, communicating ideas with peers, and practicing presentation skills. At the Showcase, one judge commented how impressive it was that students were able to propose potential solutions when asked challenging questions about their projects. Students noted that receiving feedback from professionals helped them realize how much they had learned from this project – and made them feel proud of their work.


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© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert


Students were so excited to showcase their pull toy designs at PEM in such a gorgeous, prestigious space alongside some of the finest art and historical artifacts in the world. This event was an excellent way for students to showcase all that they had learned about gear systems and design while building their toys.

What was particularly valuable about this event was the ability to learn from others. Students shared ideas with other students from across Massachusetts, in addition to PEM staff and trustees and STEM industry leaders who provided authentic feedback on their prototypes. PLTW teachers were networking together, sharing strategies for successful implementation and documentation to bring back to our classrooms, eagerly preparing for next year’s return.

Stay tuned for the event next year on May 6, 2020!


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Video is provided by Mass STEM Hub


Ashley Puopolo

Ashley Puopolo has been a teacher at Stoneham Central Middle School in Stoneham, MA for the past five years. She teaches several Project Lead The Way (PLTW) courses, including Automation & Robotics and Design & Modeling. Ashley is from North Reading, received a degree in Science Education from Cambridge College and now lives in Somerville. Her favorite part of being a teacher is guiding students to moments of success.

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