Florida Atlantic University's first student-run news source.


Florida Atlantic University's first student-run news source.


Florida Atlantic University's first student-run news source.


Block by block

In this classroom, no books are required, as typical school supplies are substituted by Lego bricks, colorful puzzles and a creative mind.

As part of the course Introduction to Inventive-Problem Solving and Engineering (EGN 3935), 24 gifted high school students participated in a 2 1/2 week-long program that involved unusual elements such as puzzles as learning tools of scientific and engineering concepts.

“This interactive course teaches students to new and powerful tools to boost their creative problem solving skills, using fun and hands-on activities to stimulate innovation,” says Daniel Raviv, FAU Professor of Electrical Engineering and course instructor.

Offered by the Department of Science and Engineering, the course has been offered successfully at the FAU Boca Raton campus for the last six years. Since 1998, selected gifted students representing over 23 high schools from Palm Beach and Broward counties have taken advantage of the opportunity of taking a class typically offered to undergraduate engineering students at the university level.

Most of the students are juniors or seniors at their respective schools and must demonstrate that they are academically qualified to participate in the program. The selective admission process includes PSAT/SAT scores, GPA, letters of recommendation and a short essay.

“It’s a somewhat competitive program,” says Melissa Morris, Teacher Assistant, “here are some of the top students in Broward and Palm Beach.”

For some of the participants, it was a requirement that had to be satisfied as part of their home school’s own programs, such as Suncoast High School’s Math and Science International Baccalaureate (MSEIB) Program. For others, it was just the wish to participate in a summer activity that would be enriching and different from other summer programs.

“It was required of us to do this so I thought it would be boring, but it was actually a lot of fun,” says Lynne Guey, a Suncoast High School sophomore.

From June 14 to June 29, teenage boys and girls attended class Monday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in a fast-paced academic environment. Since the program’s inception, the program’s intent is to make each class day closely resemble two weeks of classes during a regular college semester.

During the course of the day, students benefit from a highly-structured course that includes time for lectures, team projects and even lab sessions in state-of-the-art engineering and robotics laboratories furnished with the most advanced professional equipment.

“It’s not like high school – it was more of hands-on activities,” says Michelle Marciano, a Coral Springs High School senior.

Typical activities include more than 250 unconventional brainteasers and puzzles, the 3-D mechanical kind, all of which have been the result of Raviv’s extensive knowledge and more than 15 years of research.

“Dr. Raviv is a really smart guy,” says Lee Harris, a Suncoast High School junior, “what he teaches is not stuff from a textbook, it’s stuff that he’s researched himself.”

Raviv’s goal in the program is to shape future “out-of-the-box” thinkers with the teaching of innovative learning and interpersonal skills, placing greater emphasis on the actual process of thinking rather than on the acquisition of knowledge, which, according to him, is something that more higher-education institutions should encourage.

The emphasis on creative thinking is achieved by encouraging students to, among other things, “take risks,” “be imaginative,” “work smart” and “be different, but not indifferent.”

Perhaps the most popular activity among the students is the construction of autonomous robots with toy bricks from the Lego Company.

“I liked it because I used to play with Lego’s when I was younger,” says Matthew Marciano, a Monarch High School sophomore. “I like that you get to build stuff and create things.”

The robot construction served for the purpose of demonstrating inventive problem solutions. During the course, students had to construct a total of three autonomous robots that, once completed, would challenge one another in three separate competitions.

All competitions took place in the lobby area of the Science and Engineering Building. On June 21, the first competition, the task consisted of the building of a computerized robot that would demonstrate the ability of moving forward as its light sensors detected a change in the floor’s color (black-white).

On the second day of competition, June 23, the exercise dealt with the design and building of another robot that could exhibit the ability to get out of a complicated black maze without disturbing the other robots.

Finally, on June 28, the last day of competition, students had to construct a third robot that could climb up a hill as its wheels rotated along a five foot. piece of cable and go back down the bottom of the same hill in the shortest amount of time.

Although apparently uncomplicated, technical difficulties of keeping the robots together as pieces fell apart in the middle of a race, changed the nature of the contest and transformed it into a competition between which team could re-build their robot first.

“You just have to find the most ideal way for it [the robot] to work,” says Harris.

Each of the eight groups, consisting of three members each, were responsible for the design and construction of their own robot. Every team was provided with a tool box equipped with all the tools and materials necessary for the project, among them hundreds of blue, black and grey Lego pieces of all shapes and sizes, rubber bands and batteries.

The robot would acquire autonomous motion with the use of the Lego Mindstorm Robotics Invention System, a type of Lego software that, with its 3-D building instruction, aids in the construction and programming of the robots through the use of a programmable RCX brick, the component that also houses the batteries.

Playing with bricks may seem like play time, but through the design and construction of these robots, as well as the other eight additional projects, most of which involve puzzles and communicative activities, Raviv has the intent of teaching his students about different ways of looking at problems and different ways of reaching solutions.

“You wouldn’t know it, but the types of activities we do in class really make you think,” says Harris.

Raviv explains that an additional purpose of the program is to teach students about cooperation and learning to “work in teams,” “communicate” and “share knowledge” as opposed to “competing with others.”

“The exercises focus on teamwork and even help them learn about themselves,” says Morris.

An added element of the program is the result of so many hours working and thinking together: friendship.

“It was actually really cool,” says Michelle Marciano, “I came here not really knowing anybody and now have new friends that I plan on keeping in touch with even after this is over.”

All in all, the program combines math, science and creativity while teaching young students concepts they can apply in the future to any discipline and even their own lives.

“This is definitely a multi-disciplinary class,” says Morris. “You can apply the experience and knowledge from it to basically anything.”

For Raviv, the completion of the first session means mission accomplished. But his mission continues as he is now beginning a new summer session for a second group of students, with the same goal of making learning an entertaining experience.

“Learning can be fun, it doesn’t have to be boring,” says Raviv.

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