Today I became a Bamako elementary school student. We divided our students into 4 new groups, each assigned to complete a STEM project, prepare a project report, practice delivering the report and actually deliver the report at the Closing Ceremony to room filled with teachers, parents, and other invitées. The projects are Wind Turbine, Solar-Powered Car, Hydrogen-Powered Intelligent Vehicle, and 3-D House. I was assigned to the Hydrogen-Powered Intelligent Vehicle. Each team lined up at the door of the auditorium, boys on the left, girls on the right. I joined the line of boys and we all walked to the classroom where we would work on our project.
The teachers divided us into three groups, each group having their own project kit. The teachers gave an introduction to the project, a definition of the intelligent car and discussion of the deficiencies of ordinary car and the comparative advantages of an intelligent car. With that bit of orientation, we begin to work on our kits.
The car is maybe a 9 inches long, with an electric motor, a tiny electronics board with a microcontroller, two small tanks which hold water and trapped hydrogen and oxygen gasses, a electrolysis/fuel cell for taking water and separating hydrogen and oxygen and powering the cars motor from ion exchange, and tubes and wires to connect everything.
The car itself was not, with instructions, too difficult to assemble. Of course, there are always the instructions that don’t work, as was the case when we were unable to inject water into the fuel cell. We spent time trying without success, but it turned out the car worked anyway. Then there are the instructions that aren’t there that are needed, like the requirement to plug the lower tubes coming of the fuel cell. Fortunately, one of the teachers was able to diagnose the problems. The “other kids” had much better dexterity than me, when they saw how inept I was at assembly they took charge of actually putting the car together. Once it was all connected, the electrolysis starting, the hydrogen and oxygen gasses being produced bubbling out their container in the tanks of water. Once we had enough gas, we connected the motor to the fuel cell and, to everyone’s amazement, the car worked, propelling itself across the table and changing direction when it hit an obstacle. It didn’t take much longer for all three teams to have their cars running.
The teachers led us through a review of the experiment, a secretary was appointed to record all relevant information for use later when composing the project report.
I slipped for a little bit into teacher mode and talked about the organization of the project presentation. I showed a presentation I had prepared, on an unrelated subject, just to give the kids an idea of what a Powerpoint presentation could look like. We then went over the structure of their presentation: title page, summary of the project, problem they wanted to solve (what’s wrong with cars today), what would be the advantages of the intelligent car, material used in the experiment, results, analysis of what didn’t work and how it was addressed, conclusions. The project accomplishes a lot of things at once, it is the capstone of the camp. The kids learn some more science, put it into practice, describe the scientific underpinnings of their experiment, analyze, hypothesize, understand and correct errors, obtain and record results, and think about the implications of their work including social utility. They are learning how to organize and present technical information, to think in a rigorous way, to communicate their work to others, and to use a presentation tool like Powerpoint.
We spent some more time digging into the science behind the combined electrolysis and hydrogen fuel cell. The students didn’t have much background in chemistry and it was challenging for them to get a handle even on the high level concepts. I had a bit of brainstorm to repeat the type of exercise I created for computer systems, with students performing the roles of the essential components in a little skit. One student was a water tank, holding two molecules of water, two hydrogen atoms/students and one oxygen/student holding hands to form a chemical bond. Using a jump robe as our positive and negative leads, we connected a battery/student to the hydrogen fuel cell/student and passed each water molecule across the fuel cell to perform electrolysis, dividing the molecules into two hydrogen atoms (still holding hands because they were brother and sister atoms) on one side and the oxygen atom on the other side. The hydrogen atoms also picked up a negative charge electron (I’m a computer scientist, I might have the chemistry wrong here) and the hydrogen atoms and the oxygen atom went into gas containers/students for each. We then disconnected the battery leads and used the jump robe to connect positive and negative leads to the motor/student. Two hydrogen atoms and the oxygen atom passed on either side of the fuel cell, the hydrogen atoms giving their electrons to the motor which started to turn. As the hydrogen atoms and oxygen reformed a water molecule the motor started the car/student which propelled itself, turned after hitting obstacles and continued until the motor stopped working. The other two hydrogen atoms and the oxygen passed through the fuel cell, the motor restarted, the car continued for another period.
While their grasp of the concepts will certainly be very approximate, I think the students did get a framework to think about what was happening with the hydrogen fuel cell car. They know some very important things, like water can turn into hydrogen and oxygen gas, that there are molecules, molecules are made of atoms, and that it takes energy to break molecules apart. Materials contain potential energy and that energy can be extracted by some process. That energy can be turned into motion. The experiment also connected directly into our programming lesson where students learned about giving instructions to a computer to control direction. They could easily imagine how a chip could control the direction of the car, looking for and correctly identifying the microcontroller.
It was a lot of hard work! The teachers gave the students little breaks where we sang songs and did little dances. I recommend this practice to scientific workers everywhere, it really helped to recharge and refocus afterwards on the task at hand. Of course, I was the worst student at singing (I tried to fake the words but was quickly caught), much to the delight of my co-students. I thought I was pretty good at the dances, but for some reason my dances provoked even greater hilarity than my singing.
You can get in touch with Michael at email@example.com