'Edible Autos' Teach Future Teachers Classroom Methods
Vegetables, fruit, bread, cereal, pretzel sticks, rice cakes, candy – all were "ingredients" in "food cars" that Cathy Wissehr's childhood education students built for their science methods class at the University of Arkansas.
Early one cold March morning this year, the students brought their cars in shoeboxes and Tupperware containers to Peabody Hall. They were also allowed to bring what Wissehr called a repair kit. Several were making modifications to their food cars as class started.
After a brief discussion and look around the room at their classmates' work, the students moved out into the hallway for the start of the "Peabody 500." Some of the students soon saw problems with their engineering as their cars barely budged down the wooden ramp past the masking tape that marked the starting line. Others watched their cars make it down the ramp before losing a wheel or two or sustaining more serious damage.
Wissehr joined the faculty of the College of Education and Health Professions in January after finishing her doctorate at the University of Missouri. A former elementary school teacher, she began her career in rural schools teaching third-grade math, a combined fifth- and sixth-grade class for all subject areas, and the gifted program in grades two through seven.
She explained that the food car exercise was designed to get the university students thinking about similar projects they can do in their own classrooms someday. She required it when she taught as a graduate student at Missouri. The University of Arkansas childhood education program leads to a license to teach kindergarten through fourth grade.
When she made the assignment, Wissehr gave the class of juniors and seniors ideas about materials to use but didn't tell them what would work best. With an emphasis on thinking about the connections between science and technology, the assignment required that the students build a car made entirely of food that has two or more axles and is capable of rolling down a ramp.
The students were also required to write a three- to four-page paper explaining how certain kinds of technology – materials, manufacturing, construction and transportation – as well as gender issues related to the design, development and construction of their cars.
To prepare for this assignment, Wissehr and her students spent a day in class examining rolling objects such as wooden spools and toy cars in an effort to determine the factors that led to a car rolling in a straight line. Through their investigations, the students determined that having straight axles, aligned wheels and a balanced design led to better performance.
After this initial exploration, each group of students was given a paper bag of materials to work with. Each bag contained straws, Q-tips, plastic beads, brads, toothpicks, paper clips, pipe cleaners and a file folder. Working in groups, the students used these materials to design a rolling vehicle. This investigation provided the students with background experiences they found useful when building their individual food cars.
After the racing in the hall, Wissehr handed out "gold" medals to the student whose car went the fastest and to two students whose cars were chosen as "the best" by a vote of the class.
Wissehr asked the students questions about using competition in the classroom such as what effect it would have on the pupils, for what ages it would be appropriate and whether a competition results in a better project.
"Parents may be more likely to help because they don't want their kids to be disappointed when it's a competition," one student responded. "Then you have some kids' parents who can't help and they may feel left out."
Having children do the project in teams or groups may help in that situation, Wissehr said.
The students discussed the materials they used. Several said they put their finished cars in the freezer overnight. That made them sturdier initially but as the materials thawed in the classroom the bananas and squash became mushy and the molasses used as an adhesive softened. One student discovered that using candy sticks as axles wasn't a good idea because the moisture in the cucumber body of her car made the candy melt and become sticky.
Another student had the others laughing as she describing using a propane torch to try to melt cheese to use an adhesive. She ended up with a vehicle that resembled a grilled cheese sandwich.
"This kind of gives you an idea of what a car manufacturer must consider when considering types of plastic," Wissehr said. "They need a material that's easy to work with when it's soft but that will harden enough to be sturdy."
Most of the students in the class are female and have had limited experiences either playing with toy cars or designing and building objects, Wissehr said.
"The differences in experiences between boys and girls led to a discussion of gender differences in technology education and the importance of providing these kinds of experiences to both genders," she said.
The class also discussed the tools they used. One student said she tried to keep in mind what resources schoolchildren would have. While an electric drill would make holes faster and more uniformly round, pupils probably would have to find something more low-tech for an elementary school project.
Wissehr gave the students some advice when they go to work at a school: "Make friends with the janitor, the secretary and the cafeteria ladies. They can help you out with supplies."
She also said students would need to consider cultural attitudes of parents and the community when assigning projects. Parents of children who attend school in an impoverished area might object to what they see as wasting food in the classroom.
"I think it would be a good lesson for children," said one student. "I learned more and paid more attention to food than I ever have before. I went to the grocery store with a totally different mindset and I found food such as these breadsticks I had never seen before."
"It could be an economics lesson in scarcity of resources, too," another student said.
Heidi Stambuck, director of communications
College of Education and Health Professions