Engineering students create interactive exhibits for local museum

Engineering students working on protoypes for Explore More Museum

From soaring planes to racing boats, a team of engineering students is embarking on an ambitious project with the Explore More Discovery Museum in Harrisonburg, Virginia, to bring the wonders of engineering to life for young children.

The project began as a collaborative effort between engineering professor Shraddha Joshi and the museum’s exhibit director, Marcia Zook, who share a mutual interest in experimenting with innovative approaches to learning.

Driven by a vision to infuse art and creativity into engineering education, Joshi, the project advisor, sought a team of students who shared her ideas. “I strive to create experiences for my students — to think about engineering from a different and unique perspective.”

Zach Nelson, Oliver Miller, Erica Dobies, Emily Corsini, Kali Findlow, Michael Poole, Nathan Helems, Joshua Buckner and Nate Dodge accepted the challenge.

During the initial phases of the project, the team worked collaboratively to conduct research, generate ideas, and form sub-teams for problem exploration. Based on their interests, they divided into sub-teams. Over two semesters, students meticulously refined their concepts, conducted research, gathered feedback, and interviewed teachers and museum representatives to inform their approach.

“Interviewing stakeholders helped me develop crucial speaking skills and better understand how to engineer for people,” Poole explained.

Zook emphasized the importance of hands-on learning experiences. “Children learn intuitively through the playing process. It’s exciting for kids to design and create, then redesign and rebuild.”

They began prototyping three interactive exhibits: Wind Racers, Marble Mayhem and Wingin’ It — each designed to captivate, educate and inspire.

Wind Racers challenges participants to delve into aerodynamics by designing sails for boats, navigating challenges, and racing against the wind. Meanwhile, Marble Mayhem introduces the principles of simple machines through an interactive pegboard where users manipulate pieces to guide marbles along desired paths. Wingin’ It offers an immersive experience with a wind tunnel, allowing visitors to explore the aerodynamic properties of model planes as they tilt, soar and dive.

Poole’s understanding of the design process grew in the area of iteration. “The design process allowed me to build upon existing ideas, expanding beyond the original version and achieve better outcomes.”

Their project aligns with the newly created Electro-Mechanical Systems concentration, which offers engineering students opportunities to design, analyze, and build engineered systems at the intersections of mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering. “Part of our process was figuring out mechanical engineering, what topics we cover, and how to make it fun and educational for kids,” Dobies explained. “It is an opportunity for students to dive deeper and learn more about these areas of engineering through various course offerings and projects,” Joshi added.

Zook says the exhibits incorporate mechanical engineering concepts, allowing children to grasp engineering principles while engaging in playful activities intuitively. “We are excited the team is designing exhibits that allow children to learn interactive, hands-on experiences in a creative environment.”

Looking ahead, the team envisions creating a modular and mobile exhibit that can reach children in schools and STEM events in the community — sparking curiosity in engineering and nurturing the next generation of innovators and problem solvers.

The project has deepened students’ understanding of engineering concepts and provided invaluable real-world experience. With two more semesters ahead, they are eager to refine their prototypes and unveil their completed exhibits in spring 2025.

Learn more about JMU's Engineering program.

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by Lynn Radocha (’18) and Maya Winder (’24)

Published: Monday, May 13, 2024

Last Updated: Wednesday, May 15, 2024

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