Thanks to a serendipitous convergence of circumstances, Double Churches Elementary School students got an unusual hands-on lesson in the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and math — along with collaboration and communication — as they built hovercrafts and rode them across the gym floor Friday.
“It really felt like we were flying,” said fifth-grader Luke Norsworthy, 10. “It was really cool.”
His teacher, Eric Crouch, learned about the Hovercraft Project through one of his friends, Chaz Ingle. Ingle is a supplier of PVC material, which Matthew Chase uses in the Hovercraft Project, an initiative from Chase Educational Consulting, a nonprofit organization based in Sarasota, Fla.
Ingle told Chase that Crouch is a teacher who would like to bring the project to his school.
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“We got connected on Facebook,” Crouch said, “and it worked out like a dream.”
So on his way back to Florida from a visit to a school in South Carolina, Chase stopped in Columbus to conduct this project at Double Churches.
“What a great, awesome opportunity to bring it here,” said Crouch, one of 35 U.S. educators who received $25,000 in 2016 as a Milken Educator Award winner. “We’re actively engaging their minds and their hands in activities that are going to help them learn skills while working on an end product.”
The Hovercraft Project is designed for a full school day. This was a condensed half-day version at Double Churches. The cost is $25 per student, plus $1 per mile for Chase’s travel, but it was free to Double Churches because he was en route anyway and Crouch agreed to help market the project, Chase said.
Crouch asked first-grade teacher April Gallahair to allow her 21 students to join his 26 students.
“I know how challenging it can be to bring first-graders quality STEM-related activities,” said Crouch, who taught first-grade for five years. “What better way to help my fifth-graders learn great communication skills than to bring some first-graders in and let them work together and figure out how to make this thing float.”
The students divided into nine teams with a mix of first- and fifth-graders on each team. In 2 hours, they went through the technological development process, from concept to design to production and testing.
“A lot of times businesses will teach you what it is they want you to do, but they need you to be able to do it effectively with a team,” Crouch said. “So what better dynamic to give fifth-graders than to give them first-graders and say, ‘Now figure out how to do it.’”
Chase gave the students a kit comprising Tyvek house wrap, a yard stick, 3 feet of string, 10 markers and a piece of paper to make a team flag. He told them to create the largest perfect circle they could by cutting the house wrap so it covers a plastic disc 45 inches in diameter.
The students could ask the adults questions, but the adults could respond with only another question.
“That’s the rule for inquiry-based learning,” Crouch said. “It’s got to be student-driven.”
Then the students cut holes in the fabric and attached it to an aluminum compression ring, clamped to the plastic disc. So when a blower was clamped to the disc and turned on, the skirt inflated and air was forced through the holes, creating a layer of air between the skirt and the floor. The hovercraft elevated about 6 inches high.
The blowers force air so powerfully – 200 CFMs at a half-pound per square inch static pressure – they can lift up to 600 pounds, Chase said. He cautioned the students to ensure their hair doesn’t get near their blower’s intake vent, and he joked that’s how he became bald.
Chase was a fifth-grade math and science teacher in Illinois from 2002-04 when he realized his students “didn’t want to learn about friction from a book,” he said. “They came up with the idea of finding a YouTube video of something that would demonstrate friction.”
The next day, the students showed him a printout of what they found, a basic structure of a hovercraft, a low-friction vehicle that rides on a thin current of air. Chase, who has a background in construction, got some Tyvek house wrap, stapled it to plywood, powered it with a leaf blower, “and it worked,” he said. “Kids were learning, they had an awesome time, and they didn’t have to sit in their seats and open a book. So learning explodes when they can touch and feel it.”
Fifteen years later, Chase has taken the Hovercraft Project to an average of 40 schools per year, he said, where he typically works with students in grades 5-6. But this was the first time fifth-graders worked with younger students on the project.
“The kids are solving problems without help to create something larger than themselves,” Chase said.
Gallahair, the Teacher of the Year at Double Churches, smiled with pride as she recalled seeing her first-graders in one group actually lead their fifth-grade teammates and become the first group to get their perfect circle cut.
“Seeing how they can communicate with each other and build a bond with an older person that can be a model for them, when they see them elsewhere in the school, that helps them,” she said. “But it’s also getting them exposed to some knowledge that they wouldn’t typically get.”
Also making Gallahair beam was seeing the special-education students in her class participate in this activity.
“It speaks volumes about the ability of these fifth-graders to work with children who have special needs,” she said. “The joy this has brought them is amazing.”
After they constructed their hovercrafts, the students were allowed to ride them. First, they practiced turning on their blowers and elevating their hovercrafts. Then, with a push from a teammate, they floated across the gym floor. The hovercrafts were sturdy enough to carry adults, even with several students along for the ride. Some made it across half court and a few made it all the way.
The hardest part, said fifth-grader Ella Scott, was cutting out the skirt into a perfect circle. Sometimes the first-graders “wanted to touch stuff when they weren’t supposed to,” she said. “It got frustrating.”
But floating across the gym floor made her “really happy,” said Ella, 11, and she thought, “this finally works.”
Asked what he learned from this lesson, Luke said, “The way we had to build it, it was really difficult, and it just taught me to never stop.”