Learning on a Need-to-Know Basis

Christine Schnittka

By Charlie Feigenoff (Ph.D., English '83)
Christine Schnittka

Christine Schnittka
Photo by Tom Cogill

Christine Schnittka rebuilt her first engine when she was just 17—and found the experience exhilarating. “As a young woman, I felt proud that I could tackle a project like this on my own,” she recalls. “It gave me a lot of confidence—and I learned a great deal in the process.” In fact, she found the idea of building and repairing engines so compelling that she earned degrees in mechanical engineering from Auburn University and U.Va.

Although Schnittka eventually left engineering to teach science and technology at the Village School, a middle school for girls in Charlottesville that she helped found, she brought with her the conviction, based on her own experience, that she could teach science more effectively by structuring her lessons as engineering design problems. “In engineering, you master new subjects because you have a practical problem in front of you that you want to solve,” she says. “I found that teaching science this way was more natural and had more impact.”

For instance, in one exercise Schnittka challenges her students to build a solar car. Although she kicks off the project with an introduction to energy, students need to track down information on such topics as friction, gears and pulleys, and circuit design to complete the assignment. Other projects that she uses include building speakers, designing a zoo for microorganisms, and constructing a shelter for penguins. “One advantage of this approach,” she points out, “is that students acquire new knowledge in context, not as isolated information. And when they complete a project, they have a real sense of accomplishment.”

Schnittka soon began collaborating with Larry Richards, a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at U.Va., to produce engineering teaching kits as part of the Virginia Middle School Engineering Education Initiative. Now as a doctoral student in the Curry School of Education, she is testing and refining her approach, piloting kits in a classroom at Walton Middle School. She will follow up with interviews to measure student learning and engagement with science, and next semester will work with other teachers using the kits. In an educational environment dominated by statewide initiatives like the Standards of Learning, she must be able to structure these exercises so that specific topics will inevitably occur in the process of solving the design problem.
With survey after survey showing that U.S. students are falling behind their overseas counterparts in math and science, new approaches are desperately needed. Schnittka feels that it is important to capture students’ interest at an early age. “Middle school is the perfect time to engage students in science, and engineering design is an ideal tool,” she says. “Middle school students still like to play—and engineering is a form of play.”